HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers say they plan to change a bill to end a police exemption under the state's prostitution laws.
Currently, police acting in the course of their duties in Hawaii are legally allowed to have sex with prostitutes. Law enforcement experts and women's advocates have called that provision unnecessary and an invitation to abuse.
Lawmakers have been working to revamp and toughen Hawaii's decades-old law against prostitution, and had proposed scrapping the sex exemption for officers on duty.
But Honolulu police officials told lawmakers the exemption is a valuable crime-fighting tool, and an amended version of the bill later passed the House with the exemption intact.
On Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from citizens, advocates and lawyers who argued against the exemption. No police testified, and Committee Chairman Clayton Hee said he would amend the bill to end the exemption.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
Honolulu police are urging lawmakers to preserve an exemption in Hawaii law that lets undercover officers have sex with prostitutes during investigations. But they won't say how often - or even if - they use the provision.
The notion has shocked advocates and law enforcement experts on the sex trade.
"I don't know of any state or federal law that allows any law enforcement officer undercover to ... do what this law is allowing," said Roger Young, a retired FBI agent who worked sex crimes out of Las Vegas for more than 20 years and has trained vice squads around the country. "Once we agree on the price and the sex act, that's all that you need. That breaks the law."
Honolulu police say they need the legal protection to catch lawbreakers in the act. Otherwise, they argue, prostitutes will insist on sex to identify undercover officers.
This year, state legislators moved to revamp Hawaii's decades-old law against prostitution. They toughened penalties against pimps and those who use prostitutes. They also proposed scrapping the sex exemption for officers on duty.
But the legislation was amended to restore that protection after police objected. The revised proposal passed the House and is now before the Senate.
Selling sex would remain a petty misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The Honolulu police vice officers who investigate prostitution haven't been accused of sexual wrongdoing in recent memory, spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in an email.
In recent testimony, Honolulu police assured lawmakers that departmental policies are in place to prevent officers from taking advantage of the sex exemption. But they wouldn't detail those policies.
"If prostitution suspects, pimps and other people are privy to that information, they're going to know exactly how far the undercover officer can and cannot go," Maj. Jerry Inouye testified.
Advocates warn that the provision is an invitation for misconduct.
Melissa Farley, executive director of the San Francisco-based group Prostitution Research and Education, said prostitutes commonly complain of being coerced into giving sexual favors to police to keep from getting arrested.
Having sex with a prostitute during an undercover operation "doesn't help your case, and at worst you further traumatize someone," said Derek Marsh, who trains California police on human trafficking.
Charlie Fuller, executive director of the International Association of Undercover Officers, laughed when he heard about the Hawaii law.
"A good undercover is going to get probable cause before they have to cross that line," he said.
Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.