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Advocacy groups urge DA Zappala to stop criminalizing condoms

Jamie Martines
| Friday, June 15, 2018, 1:30 p.m.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A group of 17 organizations from across the state and Southwest Pennsylvania signed an open letter to District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. urging him to stop allowing condoms as evidence in support of prostitution-related charges.

The letter, sent to Zappala's office Friday, follows a Tribune-Review analysis that showed police charged people with both prostitution and possessing an instrument of crime in 100 cases last year in Allegheny County. In 15 of those cases, condoms were the alleged instrument of crime. In 14 others, police seized condoms as evidence.

Zappala responded with a letter of his own Friday and did not suggest that his office would consider making changes to existing procedures or policies.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh Center for Women's Health Research and Innovation, Persad Center, Pittsburgh DSA, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and Sex Worker Outreach Project Pittsburgh are among the organizations that signed on to the letter.

"Allowing condoms to be used as 'evidence' of prostitution-related offenses or increasing criminal penalties for sex workers who carry condoms is contrary to a sound public health policy that encourages Pittsburghers to carry and use condoms to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS, other sexually-transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies," the letter said.

The letter also asks the District Attorney to take steps to end the police seizure of condoms and other contraceptives as well as the practice of adding possession of an instrument of crime charges when an individual is charged with prostitution.

Zappala responded to the letter by acknowledging that charging possession of a condom as "an instrument of crime" conflicts with public health policies intended to prevent the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS. In a letter, he also said that police have an obligation to investigate potential cases of human trafficking or exploitation.

"In this regard, the issue is not about the use of condoms, but about addressing human trafficking as a priority in our law enforcement community," Zappala wrote.

Allegheny County Chiefs of Police were also included in Zappala's response.

"You will note I have copied the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police and I am asking that these sometimes competing issues be discussed to possibly better address people's concerns," Zappala's letter said.

Zappala noted that departments that don't typically investigate matters related to prostitution "may charge confiscated items as an 'instrument of crime,' but that the charges are usually withdrawn when brought to the attention of his office.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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