Police Use Sodomy Laws in Prostitution Sting
July 20, 1998
6408 Edsall Road, Alexandria, VA 22312
By Dominic Perella, Associated Press
CHARLOTTESVILLE - Men seeking prostitutes for oral sex here are being
charged with a felony under Virginias 206-year-old law against sodomy, while asking
a prostitute for intercourse is only a misdemeanor.
An American Civil Liberties Union official said the crackdown means a varying severity
of punishment for similar crimes.
"What an astonishing twist," said Kent Willis, the ACLUs Virginia
director. "The law should be more rational."
In early May, Charlottesville police seeking to target a growing enclave of downtown
prostitution sent in undercover officers, who succeeded in busting three men trying to
pick up prostitutes.
One of the men arrested had allegedly tried to pay for sexual intercourse. He was
charged with a misdemeanor, which carries up to a year in jail upon conviction.
The other two men allegedly requested oral sex. They were charged with soliciting
another person to commit a felony - namely, sodomy, which is illegal in Virginia and 19
other states. Soliciting a felony also is a felony, and it carries one to five years in
prison upon conviction.
The sodomy law - which makes oral sex illegal even if it is consensual and the
participants are married - is a rarely used relic of the 18th century blue laws. But it
remains on the books, and police occasionally drag it out and dust it off, usually for use
against homosexuals, Willis said.
Apart from prostitutes, there are no recorded cases of any heterosexuals being
prosecuted for consensual oral sex in the history of the law, lawyers said. Its most
notable recent use may have been in the Sharon Bottoms custody dispute: A judge refused a
mother custody of her child because the woman is a lesbian.
No statistics are available on how often the sodomy law has been used to elevate
solicitation of prostitutes to a felony, but the idea isnt new. Charlottesville
officials say it was suggested to them by police in Richmond and elsewhere in the state.
"Solicitation of prostitution is a misdemeanor. Thats what it clearly is
meant to be in Virginia, and thats what it is almost everywhere," Willis said.
"Yet because of the sodomy statute, you can twist legislative intent. ... It almost
makes a joke of the law."
Charlottesville Police Lt. Chip Harding said theres nothing unusual about
prosecutors seeking the maximum possible charge for a crime.
"We use whatevers available to us," Harding said. "I think state
law allows us to do that. If somebody thinks its unfair, they can take it up with
the General Assembly."
Willis said any appeal to the General Assembly would likely be fruitless.
"Legislators are afraid to touch it for political reasons," he said.
"Theyre afraid that theyll appear to be pro-gay and lesbian."
Similar laws have set off struggles in state assemblies nationwide since the 1960s.
About 30 states have replaced their sodomy laws. Of the rest, Virginia and 13 others still
have sodomy laws that cover homosexual and heterosexual sodomy, and six other states have
sodomy laws banning homosexual sodomy only.
The first man charged with felony solicitation in Charlottesville, Robert Lee Gentry
Sr., 36, cut a deal with prosecutors and ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.
Harding pointed to that fact as evidence that different charges dont mean unequal
"Usually the courts end up working it out fairly," he said.
But Willis said people should be able to count on the letter of the law itself to be
"If prosecutors didnt have this [statute], they couldnt use it,"
he said. "Thats what it comes down to. The problem is that it does exist."
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