Vice Squad
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Disequilibrium in the striptease market

Here is an interesting, albeit predictable, vice-related consequence of a decline of the US dollar relative to its Canadian counterpart. The Wall Street Journal cites a report by an owner of a chain of strip clubs in Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, that American dancers go to Canada to get higher earnings while Canadian customers are heading to Detroit where they can pay less for the pleasure of watching. My guess is that sooner or later the market has to take care of these disparities, but for the time being a measure of disequilibrium seems to prevail.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen at MarginalRevolution for the pointer (via Daniel Hamermesh's blog).
Friday, September 28, 2007
Trying to Imprison a Dissident Writer

A story in the New York Times today begins thusly: "Sometime early next year, Karen Fletcher, a 56-year-old recluse living on disability payments, will go on trial in federal court here [Pittsburgh] on obscenity charges for writings distributed on the Internet to about two dozen subscribers." No pictures involved, only words. Since the 1973 landmark obscenity case, Miller v. California, there have been no federal convictions for purported obscenity of the image-free variety. Fletcher's short stories involve "detailed fictional accounts of the molesting, torture and sometimes gruesome murders of children under the age of 10, mostly girls." But she is not charged with violating any child pornography laws -- only the (adult) obscenity rules. She is charged with being a commercial filth purveyor, because she established a fee of $10 to grant her small coterie of readers access to the site. According to the Times, Ms. Fletcher's lawyers "argued in court that the fee barely covered her expenses and was imposed only because she believed using a credit card requirement would prevent minors from signing into the site. In the end, only 29 people subscribed, at least one of whom is likely to have been a police informant." Lots of prosecutorial resources are being expended so that lots of prison resources can be expended to keep the likes of Ms. Fletcher locked up. Right then, that should take care of this internet filth. I feel safer already.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
How Laws are Made, Ohio Version

In mid-2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that states could not discriminate against out-of-state wine producers in setting their rules for direct shipments to consumers, Vice Squad member Michael noted that the required unification might not lead to liberalization of direct shipment laws -- states could unify their rules (that is, end discrimination against out-of-state producers) by attaching to in-state producers the same burdens they had previously imposed only upon the out-of-state vintners. Ohio has taken a different tack, however, one that makes an end run around the law. Only small vineyards are allowed to make direct shipments to consumers. Why lo and behold, what do you know, all of Ohio's in-state wine makers are small enough to qualify to make direct shipments! Too bad that those big California wineries don't make the grade, but hey, this is evenhanded legislation.

I think that this law will have a hard time surviving judicial review. The fig leaf covering the unconstitutionality is that Ohio's definition of a small winery used a production quota that wasn't just any arbitrary number that protected all of the in-state producers. Rather, Ohio pulled the quota from the federal tax code, from a provision that offers a tax break to small vineyards. But the intent of this Ohio law is so obviously discriminatory -- the protective intent is admitted by one of the supporters, who says it was viewed as a 'jobs bill' -- that a federal court should have little trouble seeing through or around the fig leaf.

Details of how such a bill could become a law -- not for the squeamish -- are here. Thanks to Jonathan Adler of the Volokh Conspiracy for commentary and the pointer.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Zero Tolerance for Alcohol With Youthful Drivers

Vice Squad is not all that keen on zero tolerance (ZT) policies aimed at adult vice. But Phil Cook's Paying the Tab notes at least one dimension of success with respect to zero tolerance policies targeted at young drivers (those under 21, and hence, in the US, unable to legally purchase alcohol) who consume alcohol. Congress pressured individual states to adopt ZT laws (not unlike the manner in which in Congress adopted an effectively national minimum drinking age and blood-alcohol standard for drunk driving), which enhanced penalties for underage drivers who were operating their vehicles after drinking any detectable amount of alcohol whatsoever.
All the states had come into line by 1998. The resulting natural experiment generated strong evidence that the ZT laws reduced by 13-20 percent binge drinking and total alcohol consumption by males. Thus, the demand for alcohol was reduced by limiting one unfortunately complementary activity, namely, driving.
The quote, minus an internal citation, is from pages 78-79 of Paying the Tab.

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Monday, September 24, 2007
Hungary Formalizes Prostitution

Some elements of the sex trade (not including pimping or brothels) have been legal in Hungary since 1999, but eliminating the threat of arrest does not put prostitution on a par with other forms of self-employment. For instance, prostitutes could not take part in Hungary's social security system or provide documentation to potential lenders about their income source. This is changing, however, as Hungary has begun to issue entrepreneurial permits to prostitutes. "The permits allow prostitutes to give receipts to customers and become part of the legal economy by paying taxes and making social security contributions, said Agnes Foldi, head of the Hungarian Prostitutes' Interest Protection Association." Though the government is issuing the permits, it is not keeping a list of the names of permit holders; any central registry, of uncertain privacy, would dissuade many sex workers from applying for a permit.

Hungary's tax authorities also have been offering financial planning and accounting advice for sex workers -- counseling for financial matters and for drug and alcohol abuse should more generally be part of desirable prostitution regulations, in my opinion.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007
Gambling and Other Vices

The British Gambling Prevalence Survey that we mentioned yesterday looked into smoking and drinking as well as gambling behavior. The unsurprising bottom line: smokers and heavy drinkers gamble more than others, and they also are more likely to be problem gamblers. For instance, 67 percent of current smokers play the National Lottery (that is, played at some point during the previous year), while only 54 percent of non-smokers play; 23 percent of smokers play slots, versus 12 percent of non-smokers. The alcohol question concerned how many drinks that the respondent consumed during their heaviest drinking day in the past week. Broadly speaking, the more they drank, the more they gambled. Of people who claimed that their largest day of consumption during the past week involved twenty or more units (! -- a unit is the amount of alcohol in a 12-ounce beer, a five ounce glass of wine, or a shot of liquor), 68 percent played the National Lottery during the previous year, while the overall percentage was 57 percent; 18 percent of these big bingers placed bets with bookmakers, versus 6 percent of the overall population.

Smokers were 3.5 times as likely to be problem gamblers than non-smokers, and heavy drinkers faced even steeper increases in problem gambling prevalence relative to their light-drinking peers.

Our old friend Bingo has some anomalous characteristics. First, unlike most forms of gambling, it is dominated by women. Second, and not anomalously, smokers are about twice as likely to play Bingo than are non-smokers -- this is about the same as with slot machine players, and helps to explain why casinos and Bingo parlours are particularly vulnerable to smoking bans. Third, Bingo participation does not appear to vary with drinking status -- about seven or eight percent of people play Bingo, whether we are talking about light drinkers or big bingers or the population at large.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007
British Gambling Survey

New gambling regulations went into effect in Britain this month. What will be their impact? To make it easier to eventually know the answer to that question, a pre-reform survey of gambling prevalence was commissioned; the report (182-page pdf) was released last week. (Less hefty versions can be found at this Gambling Commission webpage; also available there is the 1999 survey.)

Some of the findings: about 2/3 of the British adult population gambled in the previous year (quite similar to US gambling rates), and more than half participated in the National Lottery. The percentage of adults who are pathological or problem gamblers is about 0.6, lower than in the US (where it is estimated to be about 3.5%). Internet gambling is not very popular, with only about 3% of the population playing casino-type games or poker online; including web-based betting with bookies brings the total up to about 6%. Richer people were more likely to gamble than were poorer people, but college-educated people were less likely to gamble than those who had not earned a college degree. Like everyone else, Britons are completely wacko when it comes to estimating their gambling losses. (The usual story is a massive underestimate of net losses.) They recognize that they did not win the lottery in the past week. That is a good sign. But they recalled amazing past-week success in other types of gambling. From page 40 of the report:
Participants reported nine gambling activities on which they claimed there
was an overall net win over the past week. These were scratchcards (71 pence),
bingo (91 pence), slot machines (£1.13), horse races (£1.49), fixed odds betting
terminals (£3.27), casino table games (£17.22), online betting with a bookmaker
(£4.89), online gambling (£10.72), and private betting with friends (£3.42). In
general, the smaller the number of participants gambling on the activity, the
greater the overall net win claimed.
I suppose that the smaller the number of participants, the fewer the witnesses.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007
Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour is the nom de plume of a putative (and now former) British sex worker; Belle's renown took off when her blog won the Guardian's Best Written Blog award of 2003. Since then, she has published two books and contributed a regular column to another British daily.

Belle is back in the news because an eight-part tv series based on her adventures will begin to air in Britain next week. Reactions are polarised, with many commenters arguing that the show will misleadingly glamourise prostitution, while others (including Vice Squad) suggest that it is fine to dramatise one slice of the prostitution market, even if it is the least problematic slice. Belle herself is unimpressed with the critics (who have yet to see the show, of course), but her characterisation of academic vice commentary hurt a little; it was something along the lines of: "...soundbites from po-faced academics who also have no direct experience of the lives they imagine they are saving through master's theses that a grand total of four hand-wringingly earnest people read..." I didn't say that her description was inaccurate, only that it hurt.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Indonesian Insanity

Indonesia's cruelty in the name of the drug war is persistent but, alas, not unique. Here's an article concerning a 21-year old Australian whom the Indonesians hope soon to kill for carrying around an officially disapproved substance when he was 18 -- surely his impending death will be undertaken for the children. Another Indonesian court is showing dangerous leniency in the case of a repeat possessor (not trafficker), an American who has been sentenced to a mere three and a half years in prison. (More than ten years ago his failure to obey rules on what not to possess cost him a year in an Indonesian jail.) I am certain his (surely too merciful) punishment is for the children, because the judge said so: 'The defendant repeated his acts, which could cause the moral damage of Balinese youth.' Throwing people's lives away for a pin's fee, however, apparently is not morally damaging, to children or adults.

Indonesian idiocy is longstanding; it is also widely shared. What did Bertrand Russell say? “The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible."

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Monday, September 17, 2007
Alcohol Selling in Iraq

The trouble for alcohol sellers in Iraq began in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, but the fatal violence is a product of Gulf War II. Last week saw buyers stocking up, as alcohol sellers are shuttered during Ramadan. The buyers tend to be Muslims, but the selling is restricted, well, to those who are allowed by religious law (though not always tolerated by thugs): Christians and Yazidis. The AP has more.

Thanks to Alcohol and Drugs History Society for the pointer. Vice Squad last checked in with Iraq's beleaguered alcohol sellers when they were being banned from the airport.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007
Laotian Trade Balance Suffers

From an article in today's New York Times:
The amount of land cultivated in Laos for opium has fallen 94 percent since 1998. The country now produces so little opium that it may now be a net importer of the drug, the United Nations says.
But there's probably no reason to call for import tariffs -- it looks as if Laos just doesn't possess a comparative advantage (relative to Afghanistan) in poppy production, for agricultural reasons:
This shift to Afghanistan has had major consequences for the global heroin market: a near doubling of opium production worldwide in less than two decades. Poppies grown in the fertile valleys of southern Afghanistan yield on average four times more opium than those grown in upland Southeast Asia.
So the shift to Afghan opium seems to comport with economic efficiency.

I am of mixed mind about the article, incidentally. It has some interesting reporting, but it never notes how worldwide opium prohibition -- the completely unnecessary worldwide opium prohibition, I might add (but would not expect the article to) -- converts the growing of poppies into a Big Issue, and renders opium use almost as problematic as the prohibitionists claim it is. The article is accompanied by a worthwhile photo of Chinese "inmates" at a drug rehab center: the pictured scene doesn't give me much faith in the medical underpinnings of the "treatment" that the inmates are receiving.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007
An Anti-Pornography Campaign

A new anti-pornography website,, opened this week. (Thanks to Adult Video (not work safe) for the pointer.) The website features stories of people whose lives were negatively impacted by pornography. Though I support legal pornography, it surely is important to know the social costs of porn, so I welcome the website.

Her Story Lives is associated with the Lighted Candle Society, which also operates an anti-porn blog. The Lighted Candle Society hopes to bring civil suits against porn producers and distributors, actions akin to anti-tobacco lawsuits. But tobacco has more obvious health costs, and nicotine ingested via cigarettes appears to be highly addictive. To develop parallel types of evidence, the Lighted Candle Society hopes to fund functional MRI research that would demonstrate neurological effects from pornography exposure. How convincing can such evidence be? Wouldn't eating and drinking and yes, even sex, show some sort of impact via an fMRI? Does this make a case for banning eating, drinking, or sex, or suing their purveyors?


Friday, September 14, 2007
Limited Food Compensated By Lack of Amenities

The E-Inn in Bangalore isn't for every traveler. The food (which might be terrific, for all I know) is subject to the constraint of being of the vegetarian persuasion, and to being both locally and organically grown. Perhaps if you are there and want to diminish your appetite for a burger or a pizza, you will have a cigarette. Stop -- no smoking on the premises. If you want to self-medicate the resulting depression, don't even think about having an alcoholic beverage -- those are off-limits, too.

The hotel is designed to be consistent with sharia law. According to this article in the Times of London (thanks to Alcohol and Drugs History Society for the pointer), the demand for sharia-compliant hotels is rising. As always, Vice Squad is happy to see 100 flowers bloom on this score, as long as those who are not interested in operating their hotel along sharia principles are free to do so.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Legalization and the Black Market

In some areas where prostitution is legal, illegal variants of prostitution still seem to flourish. (They might be illegal because the prostitutes are underage, undocumented, or ineligible or unwilling to work in the legal sector for some other reason, or just for tax evasion.) I have often compared this situation with alcohol in the US, where the legal sector, though taxed significantly, seems to outcompete the illegal sector, almost eliminating it. Phil Cook's Paying the Tab, however, indicates that the comparative success of the legal alcohol sector after Prohibition was far from automatic. "Initial liquor tax collections were disappointingly low, in part because the bootleggers continued to supply something like 45 million gallons per year (66 percent of the tax paid amount) [p. 30, reference omitted]." The Feds responded with a massive surge in enforcement and some new regulations that aided their efforts, resulting "in a considerable shrinking of the black market by 1937 [p. 31]."

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Cook's "Paying the Tab"

Last month Vice Squad noted the release of Phil Cook's book on alcohol regulation, Paying the Tab. Last night a complimentary copy from the publisher, Princeton University Press, caught up with me; so far I have only read through the introductory Chapter 1. The book is elegantly written, almost a rebuke to the rest of the social science profession. (Disclosure -- Phil is a friend and former co-author, but I really don't recall the same level of grace in his earlier writings. Tom Schelling's blurb on the back refers to Paying the Tab as "beautifully written.")

Chapter 1 lays out the overall message, that alcohol control is too important to be confined to only a few dimensions, those of helping alcoholics and preventing drunk driving and underage consumption. Other measures that target the availability and price of alcohol can reduce the social costs of drinking while retaining most of the benefits. Cook compares the last couple of decades of alcohol control with tobacco control -- the latter has seen high (often too high, I -- and Phil, I think -- would argue) tax increases and a panoply of measures aimed at reducing the costs of smoking, while alcohol taxes generally have fallen (as inflation eats away their real value) and other control measures have languished.

I knew that about one-third of Americans do not drink in any given year, and that overall consumption is quite skewed towards the heavy drinkers, but Phil reinforces that message (page 8): "a majority of adults either don't drink at all or drink less than once per month, while the heavy drinkers at the top 10 percent of the distribution account for the bulk of sales and consumption." Wow.

I hope to have more on Paying the Tab as I make my way through it.

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Monday, September 10, 2007
British Prostitution Policy to Follow Sweden?

There is talk within the British government of adopting the Swedish approach to prostitution regulation, in which purchasing sex is made illegal while sales are decriminalized. (In Britain, prostitution per se is legal, though related activities such as solicitation, kerb-crawling, and living off the proceeds, are illegal.) In the linked Guardian article, one MP draws a parallel with slavery, by noting the need for a "Wilberforce moment" that renders buyers just as guilty as sellers (where "sellers" presumably refers to traffickers, and "buyers" to johns). This approach seems to accept the "all prostitution is coercion" viewpoint.

The Guardian also provides a rejoinder, entitled "Selling Sex is a Choice," that explains why the Swedish model should be eschewed. One reason is that coercion is far from the norm: "Ideologically unpalatable though it may be to some, the majority of women involved in prostitution have made a choice to sell sex, because they see no alternative way of earning what can sometimes be substantial sums of money." The rejoinder is written by Diane Taylor, co-author of a new memoir of a street prostitute.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007
British Bingo Update!

The loyal Vice Squad reader keeps asking, hey, have there been any more developments concerning the harm to the British Bingo industry from the implementation of the smoking ban? Good news: the South Wales Echo has stepped up, reporting that bingo halls have seen a revenue decline of 15 to 20 percent. The article notes that the problem isn't just that bingo playing smokers are staying home, though some are (and perhaps engaging in internet gambling); rather, it is that those who still come to the Bingo parlour don't take part in the related on-site gambling during the fifteen minute break between Bingo sessions. Fears (both for Bingo parlours and for pubs more broadly) are that the situation could worsen in the winter, when people are less willing to step outside for a smoke.

One alcohol-serving club, according to the article, has responded to the smoking ban both by installing an outdoor smoking area, and by reducing the price of beer.

Speaking of gambling in Britain, September marks the completion of the implementation of the new gambling regulations. Among other things, internet gambling providers that meet the regulatory standards can now be licensed and legally advertise on television. One Telegraph columnist, noting how major British gambling providers have not licensed their internet operations in Britain, is unimpressed:

The point of the British licence is to encourage the world's casino websites to base themselves here, where they can be diligently regulated night and day by 50 compliance managers newly recruited for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. But of the thousands of online casino operators worldwide, only a handful - 14 the last time I looked - have applied for one.

Why? Because Brown decided to tax all British-based betting and casino sites at 15 per cent of gross profits. Not surprisingly, they have chosen to be based in much lower-taxed places, eg Malta, which taxes at a very acceptable 2.5 per cent.

Ladbrokes has not signed up for a British licence, nor has William Hill, which used to be based in Curacao, but now has moved to Malta. Oh - and since Malta is in the European Economic Association, it will be allowed to advertise on television.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

The (imminent?) release of a new book, Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada, by controversial anti-prostitution scholar Melissa Farley, has occasioned lots of high-profile commentary. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert seems to wholeheartedly endorse the Farley approach, seeing coercion throughout the sex industry. An intemperate but effective rejoinder is provided by Mark Kernes of Adult Video Farley, who supports the Swedish approach of making the purchase but not the sale of sex illegal, can be viewed talking about her new book in a video (available here) from a Las Vegas tv news program. The Guardian provides an article that is quite informative, focusing on Farley's characterization of the legal brothels in Nevada.

I support some forms of legal prostitution, and I do not endorse the Swedish model. I believe that it is important to separate coercive from non-coercive prostitution in terms of appropriate public policy (as well as separating adult from underage prostitution), while recognizing that coercion resides along a continuum. Nevertheless, some of the issues raised by Farley do not simply disappear through legalization -- they require active policy responses. First, I think that she is right in pointing out that legalization of some forms of prostitution in itself is not effective at undermining illegal or informal prostitution. (This is unlike the situation with alcohol, for instance, in the US, where the legal market, despite specific taxation, comes close to wiping out the illegal market.) Second, the conditions under which legal prostitution takes place, such as the sort of extra-legal constraints on the movement of prostitutes that are applied as informal conditions of licensing, need to be addressed. Third, drug, alcohol, and financial counseling, as well as ongoing efforts to ensure that coercion is not being applied, should be part of a robust regulatory regime. Fourth, protections for the privacy of licensed prostitutes are required, in part to ease exit from the sex industry, and in part to provide incentives for choosing the formal market over the much more dangerous informal alternative.

I hope to return to this topic soon -- a promise or a threat?

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Thursday, September 06, 2007
Legal Developments in Adult Entertainment

Adult Video has redesigned its website. Two changes stand out, at least for me. First, the website seems to be closer to work-safe. (Do not rely upon this characterization.) Second, the page on legal matters is much improved, with recent news and helpful links to blogs and other commentary.

Speaking of recent news, there are a couple of stories related to what happens to your porn collection if you are in trouble with the criminal law for sex-related matters. First, a 73-year old Oregon man, on probation for a sex offense, violated that probation by possessing porn at his home. So (presumably) to maximize the publicity, the probation officer destroyed the porn collection in public by driving over it in an "8-ton double roller," whatever that is. (You can see a bit of it in the photo accompanying the article.) Second, a man recently released from a prison term imposed for secretly videotaping women has filed a suit to force the police to return his sizable pornographic movie and magazine cache, which had been seized in 2002 as part of the investigation into the videotaping charges. Perhaps he will win, as he is dealing with authorities in Northern California, not Oregon.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007
One Month for Fake Coke Sale

When you are ripped off in a transaction involving an illegal drug, just try going to the police. But when one of their informants is ripped off, well then, that is a different matter entirely. In the Pittsburgh area, Lloyd Amos just pleaded guilty to "theft by deception":
Police busted Amos in 2003 for selling a plastic bag of about 5.9 grams of bread crumbs to a police informant who paid $180 for what was supposed to be an eighth-ounce of cocaine.
Mr. Amos had been in jail for a month prior to the guilty plea, so the judge granted an immediate parole from a sentence with a 30-day minimum jail term.

Fake coke stories on Vice Squad date from our second day of operation.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Guinness Records

What are the five leading countries in terms of sales of Guinness stout? I think you will agree that it is an unusual list:

(1) Britain
(2) Nigeria
(3) Ireland
(4) United States
(5) Cameroon.

Sales have been declining rather markedly in Britain and Ireland. This Guardian article has the story; thanks to Alcohol and Drugs History Society for the pointer.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007
More on Absinthe's Presence

The loyal Vice Squad reader will recall that an absinthe made from wormwood recently became available for sale on the US market, ending a nearly century-long drought. provides an article that explains the process of getting the absinthe, named lucid (uncapitalized), approved. One of the stumbling blocks concerned labeling; specifically, could lucid call itself “absinthe” on the label? The regulators were wary, because of what they seemed to regard as absinthe’s unsavory past. But they must not have been too wary – the compromise agreed to was to add an adjective, and a French adjective at that. lucid became an "absinthe supérieure" (which also suggests that absinthe is feminine).

Other legal absinthes (or absinthes inférieures?) are likely headed for the US market.

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Saturday, September 01, 2007
Anti-Prostitution Policing in Practice

What should you do if you see a woman waving her arms on a street corner at 8AM? Try to offer assistance, perhaps? This is not recommended in the South Side of Chicago, not far from Vice Squad's own base. When a married couple, waiting for their daughter to return with a hot chocolate, found themselves in this situation, they soon realized that the woman was not in peril, but rather, was (seemingly) selling some physical companionship. They found the situation amusing. But only for a brief moment, until police officers arrested the male driver for soliciting their undercover officer. It was eight hours before he was released, while his wife and daughter were abandoned at the corner because the police impounded their car -- aren't civil asset forfeiture rules special? The charge against the driver was dropped, but the car has not been returned: "The city wants more than $4,700 in towing and storage fees if he wants the car back." Read all about this sterling piece of anti-vice police work here.

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