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California Prostitution Laws

Last updated 11/19/2019

Prostitution refers to a lewd act performed in exchange for money or another form of compensation. Under California prostitution law, a lewd act requires physical contact of a sexual nature, sexual conduct, or sexual intercourse between two people. It also is a crime to solicit prostitution, such as offering to pay money for sex, or to pander prostitution (activity commonly referred to as "pimping").

Overview of California Prostitution Laws

The following chart provides a general overview of the elements, defenses, and penalties relating to California prostitution laws:

Code Sections California Penal Code Sections 653.20 - 653.28

To prove a case of prostitution, the prosecutor must establish several elements.

  • The prosecutor must show that the defendant had a specific intent to engage in prostitution -- specifically, the defendant must have intended to participate in a lewd act in exchange for compensation.
  • The defendant and the other participant must have formed an agreement to carry out the intent to engage in prostitution.
  • The prosecutor must also show an act performed by the defendant reflecting the defendant's agreement to engage in prostitution. For example, the prosecutor might present evidence that the defendant got into the other participant's car.

While California state laws do not list the types of acts that further participants' agreement to engage in prostitution, the state courts have explained that the act may happen before or after the participants made their agreement.

  • Entrapment by an undercover police officer.
  • A law SB 1322, that took effect January 2017 decriminalizes underage persons engaged in the act of prostitution. These children are instead referred to child welfare services.
  •  Senate Bill No. 233 also gives immunity for sex workers if they report, to the police, that they are victims of domestic violence or abuse. 

A conviction for prostitution results in misdemeanor sentencing under state law. The court may sentence the defendant to probation, a term of imprisonment in county jail, or a fine.

However, probation is not an option if the defendant has a prior conviction for prostitution. If the defendant has one prior conviction for prostitution, California requires a sentence of at least 45 days in county jail without the possibility of probation, early release, or work furlough. Similarly, two or more prior convictions for prostitution will increase the sentence to at least 90 days in county jail.

In addition, the court may impose an additional punishment if the crime of prostitution took place in a motor vehicle within 1,000 feet of a private residence. The court may decide to restrict the defendant's use of a motor vehicle for up to six months, with exceptions made for driving to the defendant's school or workplace.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

Related Resources

Get Legal Help With Your Prostitution Charges: Contact an Attorney Today

A prostitution charge is embarrassing, stressful, and can result in serious fines, jail time, and other restrictions on your liberty. A lawyer can help you mount the best defense possible in your case and minimize the negative impacts. Contact an experienced California criminal defense attorney today.

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