Police arrest a man at a Bellevue condo during the prostitution sting in August. Photo courtesy of the Bellevue Police Department

Police arrest a man at a Bellevue condo during the prostitution sting in August. Photo courtesy of the Bellevue Police Department

Cops & Conduct

Error With Recording Device Leads to Dismissal of 61 Cases From Prostitution Bust

One defendant’s attorney discovered the oversight.

Editor’s note: The Bellevue Police Department initially reported on Friday that audio was captured due to a mistake of a King County Sheriff’s Office employee who was tasked with managing the cameras, however, the department did not have complete information at that time. This article reflects updated information on Monday.

More than half of the cases in an August prostitution bust in Bellevue will be thrown out because of a mistake made during the undercover sting.

The Bellevue Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office launched “Operation On Demand” by posing as prostitutes as they gathered evidence from online buyers of sex. The week-long operation resulted in the arrest of 110 for patronizing a prostitute.

Yet, according to an announcement issued by the city of Bellevue Friday, 61 of those cases have been discarded. The reason, according to Bellevue police spokesman Seth Tyler, was because an error caused hidden cameras to record audio during the operation and Washington state law requires two-party consent to the recording of audio conversations.

The Bellevue Police Department is unsure at this time whether the error was due to a misstep by a King County Sheriff’s Office employee or a technical error with the cameras.

“We don’t know where this malfunction occurred, we don’t know if it was an operator or mechanical problems and that’s what we’re trying to triage right now,” Bellevue Police Department Chief Steve Mylett said. “We don’t know specifically where this will fall to but I can tell you I’m very convinced this was unintentional.”

Mylett said there was a block of cases captured with a start and end point where there wasn’t audio captured during, and then another point in time during the investigation when audio was captured with the same equipment, machinery and operator. This, Mylett said, leads him to question if it was a failure of the equipment.

Tyler said this error was discovered by a lawyer of one of the 110 who were charged with patronizing prostitutes during the prosecution of the case.

That caused the city of Bellevue’s prosecutors to look into the other cases. With 61 impacted, the Bellevue city attorney’s office dismissed the cases, however, the remaining 59 will go through the judicial process.

“While this turn of events is disheartening, it is important to remain focused on the goal of operations such as this: to eradicate human trafficking and its related crimes wherever they exist,” Mylett said in a news release. “The mistakes made in this case were just that, mistakes. We will learn from these missteps and ensure we do not repeat them in future operations. Rest assured, there will be future undercover operations such as this one to achieve our goal.”

The King County Sheriff’s Office didn’t provide comment on the possibility that it was human error that led to the dismissals.

Mylett said Bellevue Police Department Major John McCracken, a commander in their investigations unit, will do a fact-finding process in which he will speak to the detectives involved to find out how the error occurred.

Although, the police department still considers the 59 remaining cases a success.

“We arrested 110 people caught red-handed,” he said in an interview. “We’re quite sure we would have secured convictions. If this leads to somebody who needs to get help because of addiction or it changes their behavior, that’s great. If it causes someone to think twice because they never know if the person they’re interacting with is a police office, then that’s great too.”

Mylett said his detectives have reported a decrease in demand for prostitution since their operations were launched, yet, there’s still work to be done to combat human trafficking.

Operation On Demand is part of the Bellevue Police Department’s human trafficking investigation of “the League,” a group of self-identified prostitution “hobbyists” who frequented a sex trafficking site, The Review Board, and a half dozen brothels in Bellevue that were raided and shutdown in January 2016.

news@seattleweekly.com

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