A recent crackdown on Honolulu massage parlors has hit a dead end.

The city’s prosecuting attorney has dismissed sex assault charges against workers busted during an undercover operation.

Between April 30 and May 2, Honolulu Police arrested 16 women, ranging in age from 24 to 60.

Police arrested them for sex assault instead of prostitution, which carries a longer prison sentence.

But prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro said while there was probable cause for the arrests, prosecutors decided to not take the cases to trial because they believed they couldn’t prove the violations beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Although the conduct might have constituted a technical violation of the law, proof beyond a reasonable doubt could not be established. Therefore, these cases were dismissed,” he said in a statement.

“This is the least effective way, most abusive way in attaining justice for girls who are actually trapped in the sex trade, who are sex trafficked, possibly,” said Kathryn Xian with the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.

Former prosecuting attorney Peter Carlisle said he’s not surprised by the dismissal.

“It seemed to me that there were going to be some problems in terms of whether you’re going to get people to come and testify, their willingness to disclose facts to police,” Carlisle said.

Kaneshiro noted that the police operation was initiated due to neighborhood complaints about prostitution being conducted in massage parlors.

Many say the women who work at these establishments don’t usually testify out of fear, and if a woman is arrested and is identified as a victim, they are provided with immediate care.

“How do you think HPD should move forward?” KHON2 asked.

“HPD should focus on the brothel owners, the landholders and the patrons of prostitution who have just as much, if not, more information about who they pay for sex,” Xian said.

HPD says it is focusing on pimps and owners. In the last two years, police arrested 19 people for promoting prostitution.

In a letter released Tuesday, police stated the actions taken to prevent prostitution and sex trafficking.

Police said they were working with the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security Investigations on “a strategy that focuses on pimps, massage parlor owners, others who promote prostitution and those who engage in the trafficking of minors for sexual exploitation.”

Police stated the following:

  • Every individual who is arrested is asked if she is a sex-trafficking victim. Those who say yes and who are identified as victims are provided with immediate care, recognized as possible cooperative witnesses, and directed to social services.
  • Most officers don’t like enforcing prostitution laws, and many feel uncomfortable. But they know they have a job to do, and they know what the rules are. They either observe a violation or not. If there’s no violation, the officer walks out without an arrest. If the officer witnesses a violation, whether it’s prostitution, sex assault, narcotics, or something else, the officer is required to take appropriate enforcement action.
  • Because many prostitutes know that the police need a verbal agreement of sex for money before an arrest can be made, they will routinely do a “cop check.” This consists of initiating sexual contact to try to determine if a prospective john is an undercover police officer. Workers do this because they know that the officers are not allowed to initiate sexual contact.
  • Businesses are not randomly chosen. Undercover officers are sent to locations and establishments that have already generated public complaints. If illegal activity is occurring, a police operation can temporarily disrupt the businesses and put the owner and workers on notice. It can also be a source of potential witnesses.

HPD has met with different agencies about the issue, and said “thus far, the discussion has not yielded or produced a viable police strategy that does not involve the enforcement of prostitution laws.”

After the arrests were made in early May, defense attorney Victor Bakke told KHON2, “This now has gone from the trend of treating the sex workers as victims to now treating them as not just prostitutes but as predatory sex offenders. This shift in philosophy just seems to be mind-boggling at this point and has set victims rights back 20 years.”

Police said they will continue to work closely with law enforcement partners and those in the community.