Penny wise, impound foolish

It isn’t the first time the City of Detroit has been sued for deploying undercover cops as prostitutes. News Hits predicts that it won’t be the last.

In December, Gary Culver sued the city and a Detroit police officer in Wayne County Circuit Court after he was arrested for allegedly soliciting an undercover cop posing as a prostitute. According to the lawsuit, Culver, a former Ameritech Services employee, was repairing a pay phone on the city’s east side in 2001 when police officer Michelle Donald, posing as a prostitute, approached him. Culver said he told Donald “to take her business around the corner” and continued working on the pay phone; minutes later, uniformed officers arrested Culver and the Ameritech van was impounded, the lawsuit states.

Culver pleaded not guilty to the charge and requested a jury trial. But Donald never showed and the case was dismissed. Culver was fired from his job. (He also sued Ameritech for wrongful termination.)

Although the solicitation case was dismissed, Ameritech had to pay to reclaim the van. In fact, anyone who is charged with solicitation and has their vehicle impounded must pay $975 to reclaim it — even when found innocent of the charge. The police department gets $650 of the $900 impound fee, according to the department’s corporate communications office. Another $250 goes to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, according to spokesperson Rebecca Tenario, who says that the county impounded about 7,000 vehicles last year; nearly all the vehicles were impounded in Detroit. The towing company gets the remaining $75.

Culver’s lawsuit alleges that the impound fee gives officers an incentive to falsely arrest people for solicitation.

“I’m convinced that the city profits so much from this program that it gives them quite an incentive to do what is done to Gary and other unsuspecting citizens,” says attorney Jeanne Mirer, who represents Culver.

Mirer adds that since police decoys don’t wear wires or use video cameras, it comes down to the officer’s word against that of the suspect.

The lawsuit also alleges that officers often don’t show for trial, insulating them from cross-examination.

Brenda Braceful, Detroit’s deputy corporation counsel, says she can’t comment on the lawsuit since she has not yet reviewed it. However, Braceful says that stings are “not designed to generate revenue but to make streets safe for citizens.” She also says it’s possible that officer Donald did not attend Culver’s trial because she was not notified of it.

But Donald did attend a hearing in which Culver challenged Ameritech’s denial of his unemployment benefits. At that hearing, Judge Martin Hirshman ruled in Culver’s favor, writing that he found Donald’s testimony “untrue” and “inconsistent” with her written police report.

Donald could not be reached for comment.

The Triangle Foundation, a Detroit-based gay and lesbian advocacy group, along with six men, sued the city and several officers in 2001 after hundreds of gay men were arrested in Rouge Park and had their cars impounded for allegedly soliciting officers posing as male prostitutes. The Detroit City Council held several hearings where gay men testified that they were entrapped by police officers who offered them sex.

“Their only interest is to generate money,” Triangle Foundation executive director Jeffrey Montgomery says of the sting operations. He and others suggested at council hearings that decoys wear wires or the department deploy more uniformed officers in areas where prostitution is rampant.

Culver has another solution — get rid of the stings. “They’re not doing it to prevent crime or deter crime,” he says. “They’re doing it for the purpose of money.”

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Metro Times editorial staff

Since 1980, Metro Times has been Detroit’s premier alternative source for news, arts, culture, music, film, food, fashion and more from a liberal point of view.
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