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Is It Legal for Police to Have Sex With Those in Custody?

Is It Legal for Police to Have Sex With Someone in Custody?
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Two Pennsylvania lawmakers don't think it's right that cops in that state can legally have sex with people in their custody. They're proposing bills to prohibit it.

But before you conclude that Pennsylvania is a weird place for letting their police officers do that, consider this: 31 other states also allow it.

We're talking consensual sex, mind you. If cops force themselves sexually on those in their custody, they can face criminal charges like anyone else.

But the problem here is obvious. Police officers have great authority over people they place in custody. And they can use that authority to convince a detainee to engage in "consensual" sex in exchange for release or leniency.

Hundreds of Incidents Nationwide

The practice, apparently, is widespread.

In 2015, the Buffalo News conducted an exhaustive national analysis of sexual encounters between cops and detainees and found 700 credible cases over a 10-year period. The News found that badge-wearing violators "pulled over drivers to fish for dates, had sex on duty with willing or reluctant partners, extorted favors by threatening arrest and committed rapes."

There's been a growing awareness since then, and especially since a highly publicized incident in New York in 2017, that this is a problem.

The New York Case

The New York case in question involved NYPD officers who were charged with raping a handcuffed 18-year-old woman, whom they'd arrested on drug charges, in the back of a police van. DNA found on the woman during an exam at a medical center that night matched the officers.

After the woman filed charges, the cops responded by saying the sex was consensual. And that argument, as much as anything else, is what fueled widespread outrage in New York. The very counterargument that the officers were making — that the sex was consensual and they were therefore innocent — caught people by surprise.

Lawmakers were apparently surprised, too, because four months later the legislature passed a law prohibiting consensual sex between police and anyone in custody. After New York acted, reducing the number of states allowing sex between cops and detainees, three more states followed suit.

The two officers voluntarily resigned from the NYPD, but the story roared back to life in October of this when a judge hearing the case against them announced his decision. The two men would serve no jail time. Instead, they were sentenced to five years' probation.

The ruling provoked another outcry. And more reactions, like those of the two lawmakers in Pennsylvania, that laws need to change.

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