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Detroit is the largest city in Michigan, with a population of about 640,000 residents, and is located in the southeastern region of the state, within Wayne County. The city and the surrounding region have had well-documented local problems with prostitution, sex trafficking, and a wide range of associated crimes, spanning decades. Public health officials have found that over 90% of those being sold in street prostitution were addicted to illicit drugs, and substantial proportions have infectious diseases and continue to prostitute or to be sex trafficked, and often engage in sex without condoms. Among the wide range of crimes involved in the local sex trade have been assault the assault and rape of prostituted women and sex trafficked girls and boys, homicide, weapons and drug offenses, child endangerment, and prostitution and trafficking-related child sexual abuse materials (CSAM, or “child pornography” in most criminal codes). For example, in July 2022, a federal jury found a Detroit man guilty of child pornography and sex trafficking charges after a three-day trial in U.S. District Court. The man was charged with producing, transporting, and possessing child pornography in addition to sex trafficking. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for the child pornography conviction as well as up to life for the sex trafficking conviction. The case against the offender stems from a West Bloomfield Township Police investigation in which police detectives and officers executed search warrants in 2016 at the man’s home for fraud related to identity theft and missing money totaling more than $50,000. During one search, they found three women in the home who he claimed were his wives, and a cellphone with multiple sexually explicit images involving young children. The case was then turned over to Homeland Security officials. In the second search, they discovered a 25-year-old woman chained and locked to a stripper pole in the living room; he had restrained her after she tried to leave. Further investigation revealed the offender was sex trafficking the woman and three others out of his home.
More than one serial killer of prostituted women has also operated in the Detroit area, and sex buyers have also been robbed and killed by pimps and prostituted women. In 1999, a police officer was killed by a sex buyer during a prostitution sting in Detroit. In January 2022, a new documentary was released that illustrates the devastating impact of the sex trade in the metro Detroit region. In April 2022, the Detroit City Council submitted a proposal for the establishment of the “Human and Sex Trafficking Task Force.”
In its efforts to address such crimes, the city has been one of the most aggressive in the United States when it comes to combating consumer demand, particularly through the arrest, prosecution, and sanctioning of sex buyers. It was among the first to conduct reverse stings, beginning in 1970. From the 1990s to roughly 2015, Detroit had averaged several thousand male sex buyer arrests per year. In addition to the volume of arrests, the city and county are noteworthy for their use of vehicle seizures and their associated fees and fines. As of mid-2021, it appears that the number of sex buyer arrests per year has declined from the previous decade’s levels.
Auto Seizure Program
In Detroit and surrounding Wayne County, vehicles used in the commission of a crime may be seized. They may only be retrieved after paying a fine and additional towing and storage fees. First implemented in 1988, this tactic is now applied to all sex buyers soliciting prostitution from a personally-owned vehicle. Formally known as the Vehicle Seizure Program, it is operated by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. To retrieve his vehicle, an arrested sex buyer must provide:
- Notice of Seizure
- Valid driver’s license or state ID
- Vehicle registration or vehicle title
- Money Order or Cashier’s Check – NO cash or personal checks
First-time offenders must pay a $900 retrieval fee; the penalty increases to $1,800 for second offenses. As this generates substantial revenue, city and county police frequently channel funds into future prostitution investigations and stings. According to a report from 1997, police seized 3,198 vehicles from men attempting to buy sex. At that time, the penalties were lower: $650 for a 1st offense and $1,300 for a 2nd. Over 2,000 of the arrestees paid the first offense fine of $650, and over 400 paid the second offense fine of $1,300. Thirty-six cases were contested, and the police department prevailed in 31 of those cases and collected the fines. The rest of the vehicles were either returned to their owners or abandoned. Approximately $1.36 million was generated from seizure fees. As towing and impound fees must be financed by the sex buyers themselves, police need not use the generated revenue to reimburse towing companies or storage facilities.
Although it is unclear how many reverse stings were needed to net 3,200 arrests in 1997, our discussions with Detroit law enforcement may provide insight into the overall sting procedure. Operations last an average of eight hours, using teams of one decoy and seven support officers. While investigations have at times netted upwards of 100 customers, the average reverse sting results in 7 arrests. Applying these averages to the 1997 data, we can estimate that it took about 440 reverse sting teams working eight-hour operations to make the arrests. If the average cost of a reverse sting was $3,000 ($1,900 for 64 hours of direct labor, and $1,000 for indirect costs), then the police department expended about $1.32 million in conducting reverse stings. There are expenses incurred by courts after the point of arrest, but courts typically impose a $500 fine.
While actual expenditures may vary, overall estimates suggest that vehicle seizure fines and court fees appear to cover what it costs to arrest and process sex buyers in Detroit. Note that this cannot be generalized to most other cities, since few impose such heavy fines and fees. But it does illustrate how fines and fees can be used to help cover or defray the costs of reverse stings. Similarly, the First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco (a “john school”) is fully funded by fee revenue – all educational program and court processing expenses are covered by fee revenue, and about 1/3 of the cost of reverse stings are covered. In addition, one-third of the FOPP fee revenue is used to support programs for survivors of commercial sex and sex trafficking.
National Assessment Survey (2012)
- Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office – Vehicle Seizure Unit
- “Anti-Prostitution Plan Criticized”, Reading Eagle, March 18 1978.
- “Honest Johns’ Used Cars”, Miami News, October 6 1988.
- “Detroit Seizes Cars in Prostitution Raids”, Chicago Tribune, November 19 1988.
- “150 ‘Johns’ Lose Their Cars in Detroit”, Philadelphia Daily News, December 7 1988.
- “Police Pulling Wheels from Under Prostitutes’ Customers”, Los Angeles Times, June 26 1991.
- “Court Expands Police Confiscation Powers: Ruling Backs Seizure of Woman’s Car Used by Husband, Prostitute”, Rocky Mountain News, March 5 1996.
- “Cops Grab 3,100 Cars from Johns”, Owusso Argus-Press, May 6 1998.
- “Cops Take Away Cars in Stings”, Detroit News, March 14 2001.
- “Detroit Police Arrest 38, Seize 12 Vehicles in Prostitution Sweep”, Detroit Free Press, November 8 2005.
- “Highland Park Police Officer Arrested for Soliciting Prostitute”, Detroit News, July 21 2007.
- https://www.issuelab.org/resources/1191/1191.pdf (2008)
- “Police Property Seizures Ensnare Even the Innocent”, Detroit News, November 12 2009.
- “Wayne Co. Profits from Police Property Seizures”, Detroit News, November 13 2009.
Street-Level Reverse Stings:
- “Suspended Policewoman Felt Assignment Was Degrading”, Owusso Argus-Press, May 20 1970.
- “Policewoman Refuses ‘Streetwalker’ Duty”, Daytona Beach Morning Journal, May 22 1970.
- “Detroit Judge Wages War on Decoy Prostitutes”, Debuque Telegraph-Herald, August 16 1976.
- “Gunman, Officer Die in Prostitution Sting”, Deseret News, February 6 1999.
- “Prostitute Arrest Plan Unchanged”, Detroit News, January 17 2005.
- “Sheriff: Driver Stopped School Bus to Ask Police Decoy for Sex”, Owusso Argus-Press, December 20 2007.
- “16 Nabbed in Crackdown”, Detroit Free Press, March 20 2008.
- “Mayor’s Security Card Scuffles with Channel 7 Reporter”, Detroit News, June 27 2008.
- “Detroit Police Crackdown on Prostitution Customers Nets 128 Arrests”, Detroit News, December 16 2008.
- “Detroit Man Accused of Impersonating Police Officer”, Michigan Live, January 21 2010.
- “Sex, Drug Stings Nab More from Suburbs than City,” Detroit News, October 6 2015.
Web-Based Reverse Stings:
- “Deputy Snared in Prostitution Sting”, Detroit News, February 11 2008.
- “21 Arrested in Craigslist Prostitution Sting”, Detroit News, April 16 2009.
- https://www.michigancriminallawyer-blog.com/analysis-answers-offer-engage-solicitation-prostitute-detroit/ (2017)
- “Police Puts Prostitutes in Unwanted Light”, Los Angeles Times, October 6 1976.
- “Newspaper Lists Prostitutes, ‘Johns'”, Boston Globe, October 10 1976.
- “Detroit Plans ‘Johns TV’ to Combat Prostitution”, Lawrence Journal-World, November 14 2002.
- “To Stem Prostitution, Detroit May Put Customers on Television”, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 17 2002.
- “Johns Nabbed in Detroit May Star on TV”, Detroit News, March 4 2003.
- “Prosecutors Solicit Viewers: Tonight’s All-New ‘Johns TV’ Episode Highlights Excuses”, Detroit Free Press, April 7 2003.
- “Prostitutes”, Lansing State Journal, July 11 2003.
- “No Airtime for Detroit’s Johns”, Multichannel News, August 10 2004.
- “Detroit: ‘Come Quick, I Think It’s Dad on TV!”, Media Daily News, August 12 2004.
- https://www.issuelab.org/resources/1191/1191.pdf (2008)
Other Sanctions Applied to Arrested Sex Buyers:
- “Men Turning in Essays on Prostitution Soliciting”, Gadsden Times, December 8 1978.
- “Essays from Would-Be Johns Are Enlightening”, St. Joseph News-Press, December 10 1978.
- “Black Youths Patrol Detroit East Side”, Daytona Beach Morning Journal, February 4 1969.
- “Detroit Wages War on Sex Businesses: Citizens Picket Prostitutes While Officials Use Zoning Laws to Close Parlors and Theaters”, New York Times, November 1 1976.
- “Enforcement of Zoning Laws Demanded: Detroit Checks Sex Industry”, Youngstown Vindicator, November 2 1976.
- “Detroit Police Nab 19 Connected with Prostitution Ring”, Michigan Daily, August 2 1977.
Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Exploitation in the Area:
- “Detroit Police Smash Prostitution Ring”, St. Petersburg Times, April 5 1956.
- “Teenage Prostitution Ring Broken Up in Detroit”, New York Times, January 16 2003.
- “3 Metro Detroit Children Rescued in FBI Crackdown on Prostitution”, Detroit News, February 24 2009.
- “Detroit Cracks Down on Sexual Servitude”, NBC News, May 13 2011.
- “AG: ‘Detroit Pink’ Prostitution Ring Sold 15-Year-Old for Sex, Forced Woman to Transport Drugs”, Michigan Live, December 1 2011.
- “FBI: Child Prostitution ‘a Serious Problem’ in Detroit”, Michigan Live, June 26 2012.
- “Detroit Police Bust Alleged Online Prostitution Ring”, USA Today, May 24 2013.
- “Forced Underage Prostitution on Rise in Metro Detroit and Beyond, Troy Panel Says”, Michigan Live, June 11 2013.
- “105 Kids Rescued from Prostitution Rings; 159 Arrested”, USA Today, July 29 2013.
- “12 Alleged Pimps Arrested in Child Sex Trafficking Sting,” Detroit Free Press, October 14 2015.
- http://mjdaonline.org/rape-sex-trafficking-is-detroit-youth-home-endangering-girls (2019)
- https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/ (2020)
- https://www.detroitnews.com/feds-charge-detroit-man-alleged-sex-trafficking-operation (2021)
- https://www.clickondetroit.com/detroit-man-sentenced-15-years-sex-trafficking-women-struggling-addictions (2021)
- https://detroitmi.gov/Est Human Sex Trafficking Task Force.pdf (2022)
- https://www.justice.gov/detroit-man-convicted-sex-trafficking-charges-1 (2022)
- https://www.metrotimes.com/new-documentary-devastating-impact-sex-trafficking-industry-metro-detroit (2022)
Background on Prostitution in the Area:
- “2 Judges Make Hookers, Johns Take AIDS Tests”, Chicago Tribune, April 8 1987.
- “Suburbs Boost City Crime: Police Say 65% of Drug Forfeitures Involved Visitors From Hookers”, Detroit News, April 23 1999.
- “Prostitution in Detroit Hits the Internet”, Detroit News, July 15 1999.
- “Police Blitz Nets 100 Prostitutes”, Detroit News, February 10 2004.
- “Wayne County Plan Gives Prostitutes ‘Fresh Start'”, Detroit News, May 16 2004.
- “Police Crack Down on 8 Mile” Detroit News, June 14 2007.
- “Busted in Detroit: Escort Service Was a Prostitution Front”, Detroit News, December 10 2010.
- https://www.michigansexcrimeattorneys.com/detroit-police-sued-teens-arrested-allegedly-interfering-prostitution-sting/ (2016)
Documented Sex Trafficking and Prostitution-Related Violence, CSAM in the Area:
- https://www.odmp.org/police-officer-richard-daniel-scalf (1999)
- “Man Claims 30 Killings, Police Says”, Spokesman-Review, April 14 2000.
- “Man Will Face Trial in Deaths of 7 Prostitutes in Detroit”, Owusso Argus-Press, September 20 2006.
- “Detroit Police: Prostitutes Lured Farmington Hills Podiatrist, Accomplices Murdered Him,” Detroit News, August 17 2009.
- “Detroit Police Say Killings May Be Linked to Backpage.com”, NWCN News, December 30 2011.
- “Backpage.com Killer Stays in Cell on Sentencing Day,” USA Today, April 15 2014.
- “Alleged SW Detroit Serial Rapist Arrested, Charged,” NBC/WDIV-TV 4, June 10 2015.
- “Victim Helps DPD Identify Man Accused in Armed Attacks,” Detroit News, June 10 2015.
- https://www.clickondetroit.com/man-accused-of-targeting-killing-sex-workers-in-detroit/ (2020)
- https://www.detroitnews.com/federal-jury-finds-detroit-man-guilty-child-porn-sex-trafficking (2022)
- https://www.freep.com/ryon-travis-human-sex-trafficking-child-pornography-guilty-detroit-michigan (2022)