An open letter distributed to all the major Vancouver media outlets, City Council and Vancouver Police Dept., July 16, 1998.

Police use questionable tactics to frighten "johns"

On July 15, BCTV aired a report which revealed that, for the past two months, Vancouver police have been engaged in a letter-writing campaign in East Vancouver. The story ran on the early news, the 6 o'clock news, and on Canada Tonight.

Police have been taking down licence plate numbers of any vehicles seen driving through known prostitution strolls. After retrieving the home address of the owners of these vehicles, they have been mailing out letters on police stationery, warning drivers to stay away from these areas. Police also stated that they would be sending letters to "known pimps." Other cities like Abbotsford, Surrey and New Westminster are planning to jump on the bandwagon.

This attempt to deter potential clients of prostitutes from visiting strolls is a blatant misuse of police power.

Although there is no indication that the drivers of the cars observed even spoke to any prostitutes, these letters imply that the drivers have been caught breaking the law -- communicating for the purpose of prostitution in a public place. Even if one of these drivers did pick up a hooker, this does not constitute evidence that sex-for-hire negotiations were completed or that they took place in public. While previous court cases have defined a car on a public road as a public space (Regina versus Mah), there is no evidence that the drivers who receive these letters are actually johns in search of sex. Moreover, many prostitutes who are aware of the law do not discuss these matters until they have gone somewhere private.

Consider the possible consequences of these letters. The person named in the letter is the registered owner of the car, who may not or may not have been driving it when it was seen passing through the neighbourhoods in question. Such letters could be received by family members of either the car owner or the actual driver, and could have a devastating impact on the lives of those to whom they are addressed, those for whom they were intended, and others who might open them.

Even though prostitution has always been legal in Canada, the stigma associated with it can be severe. In July 1997, Abbotsford police released the names of 47 people arrested in a sting opertation in which an undercover officer posed as a hooker. Police justified this measure by claiming it was in the interests of "community health."

Tragically, the day after police released the names, one of the men charged, a recent immigrant from India, committed suicide. The Indo-Canadian Voice was the only news outlet to publish the names. (Ironically, the man's name was not published because he killed himself before it went to press.)

This use of police resources to mount a moral crusade against an activity which isn't even illegal is reminiscent of the case of Constable Stephen Parker of the Delta Police, who was disciplined in 1995 after an internal police investigation found that he had used police computers to check the licence plates of people entering a Vancouver abortion clinic.

Photo radar also involves a licence plate number being recorded and the owner of the vehicle (who may or may not have been driving the car) receiving a letter and a ticket at home. Last week, a Richmond justice of the peace ruled that the photo radar law violated Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We are lucky to live in a society where you are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and we must be vigilant in defending this right.

Residents' groups complain about the annoyance of increased traffic through their neighbourhoods as a result of street prostitution. How can the Vancouver police justify infringing on innocent people's right to privacy, their right to freedom of movement and their right to be free of unwarranted police intrusion, in order to address these few complaints?

Is it the place of the police to use shame tactics to intensify the stigma associated with prostitution? To attempt to de facto criminalize innocent or legal activity? What of the possible repercussions? The possibility of ruining people's lives and the lives of their loved ones? Is it really worth this cost?

Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver

Andrew Sorfleet


[SWAV Letters] [Rights Groups]

Created: July 17, 1998
Last modified: April 1, 2008
SWAV Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710