April 22nd, 2024

Court challenged on difference, if any, between escort and sex worker

By COLLIN GALLANT on February 23, 2024.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

A woman charged in Medicine Hat as an unlicensed escort last year is challenging the municipal bylaw ticket as unconstitutional because she should be considered a sex worker.

The distinction, the women’s legal agent argued in court Thursday, creates a basis for a legal challenge that the city unevenly applies licence fees and fines to something that is under the purview of Ottawa to regulate.

Lawyers for the City of Medicine Hat say the reading and implementation of the 20-year-old local statute is clear and police are in the right to ticket violators.

Local paralegal Ken Montgomery represents the woman, and told reporters after a one-day hearing Thursday it is an open secret that escorts provide sexual services to clients.

If they don’t, he continued, then they should fall under other business licensing categories, such as masseuse, peddler or social service providers that are charged thousands of dollars less for city licences.

“(In Canada) it’s legal to be a prostitute, but illegal to communicate for the purpose of getting sexual services or advertising,” said Montgomery. “If you admit an escort is a prostitute, how can you licence a business that cannot legally operate?

“You can’t. It’s like saying a butcher can’t sell meat.”

The 27-year-old woman did not attend the hearing before assistant chief Justice Sylvia Oishi that concluded with written final submissions. A judgement date will be determined in late March.

During testimony Thursday, witnesses for the city and defence did not make make definitive statements about the difference.

Two officers involved in the ticket, their senior inspector and the city’s business licence co-ordinator each stated that either the licence application process and police judgment determines whether the bylaw applies or has been contravened.

The Ontario resident was charged in May 2023 after Medicine Hat police Sgt. Darren Lole flagged an advertisement on an internet listings site.

He didn’t recognize the name “Ross” (followed by a phone number) on a list of 15 licensed escorts who work in the city (there are four licensed agencies).

He engaged the phone number via text message and arranged a meeting at a southend hotel. Lole and another officer arrived at the hotel room and issued three tickets to the women inside who matched a picture in the ad.

She was charged municipally, not criminally, with working as an unlicensed escort, not being represented by an agency and advertising the service, each with a $500 fine.

Montgomery produced the advertisement, which offers a price of $120 for a half-hour massage with “full release” and options for longer time and a shower.

“You didn’t think at any time that this woman was a sex worker,” Montgomery asked charging officer Sgt. Darren Lole.

“I thought she was an escort,” he replied.

City lawyer Rex Osivwemu reiterated in questioning that the wording of the bylaw defines “escort” as “an individual who charges or receives a fee or any other compensation for acting as a date or providing personal companionship for a limited period of time.”

Laws regarding the sex trade changed in 2014 when the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” removed criminal violation for selling sexual services, but maintaining the illegality of buying sexual services, or earning fees or a commission on the transaction.

Lole told the defence agent that no related human trafficking investigation was launched into the 2023 episode.

Court also heard that local police officers, not the bylaw enforcement division, issued a total of 116 escort bylaw tickets in 2021 and 2022.

Insp. Brent Secondiak is in charge of the operational division of the Medicine Hat Police Service, including the major crimes unit, which oversees escort bylaw enforcement.

He told court the “complexity of the cases” and “covert” nature requires undercover resources that the bylaw enforcement office does not have, but there is no dedicated local prostitution or human trafficking unit.

On the licensing issues, city licensing co-ordinator Kristina Hoefman said several examples exist in the licensing bylaw where tradespeople – such as hairstylists – require a licence as individuals, while also a home business permit or business permit is required.

She also said her office forwards escort-related applications to the police department which conducts police checks and evaluates applications. They are approved by her office if they are returned with police OK.

Licensing fees for individual escorts are $250, or $350 for non residents, and $5,000 for an agency or $3,000 if an individual applies for an “independent agency” licence.

The total, according to the notice of Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge filed last August, compares to $107 for a general business licence.

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