San Francisco police officers have been using condoms as evidence against sex workers according to a recent report--a move that conflicts with city policy and that human rights activists claim contributes to the rise of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
In a 112-page July report, Human Rights Watch detailed interviews with more than 300 sex workers and transgendered people in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Those interviewed claimed that officers regularly harass, threaten and arrest them for carrying condoms, which police allegedly use as evidence of prostitution.
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San Francisco is home to a city policy that bans officers from using condoms as evidence against sex workers. But according to the report, San Francisco officers regularly photograph condoms to use as probable cause.
"I have several cases on my desk right now that use photographs of condoms as evidence," said Public Defender Jeff Adachi to The Huffington Post. "This flies in the face of a city policy that San Francisco has long held. We want to encourage sex workers and others to practice safe sex, but this does just the opposite."
According to the Examiner, condoms were used as evidence in at least eight low-level prostitution cases in San Francisco in the past year.
"This is a problem because it's making sex workers less willing to carry and use condoms when they're working," said Megan McLemore, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in a video interview about the report. "They're ending up having unprotected sex with their clients as a result."
Similar stories were reported in other cities.
"Unfortunately I can only carry one condom," said a New York sex worker in the video interview with Human Rights Watch. "I can't carry more because if I have bad luck and the police catch me they could put me in jail because police can use them as proof."
In New York, sex workers are pushing lawmakers to ban using condoms as evidence. According to Bloomberg, condoms are considered probably cause for prostitution arrest in the state, and groups are currently pushing a bill that would make the practice illegal.
The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office argued that the bill is too broad, and would make it difficult to prosecute other crimes, such as human trafficking.
Human Rights Watch argues that the current practice leaves sex workers even more vulnerable to life-threatening diseases.
"These are very vulnerable, very marginalized people who are living very risky existences," said McLemore. "And condoms are one of the few protections they have."
See Human Rights Watch's video about the debate below: