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Strip club laws a ball of confusion

Stayed charges leave exotic dance clubs in legal limbo

BY VERN SMITH

A second provincial court decision staying bawdy-house charges against two more GTA strip clubs effectively legalizes on-site offers of cash-for-sex, a lawyer for three of the girlie bars says.

Morris Manning says Ontario Court Justice Bill Gorewich stayed eight bawdy house charges from 1998 against two York Region strip clubs, Fantasia and Goddess Night Club, in June because municipal adult entertainment licences legitimize such dealing.

Earlier this year, Manning had similar charges stayed against the Brass Rail -- a Yonge Street strip club -- on the same grounds.

"The law, traditionally, is that prostitution means the offering of lewdness or lewd behaviour for money," says Manning. "Yet the definition of an [exotic dancer] in the licensed provision says that person offers services appealing to erotic or sexual appetites and is licensed."

The problem seems to be that appealing to erotic or sexual appetities, especially when table dancing enters the equation, usually involves dancers touching strip-club patrons.

"It isn't even the touching, it's the offering," explains Manning. "Which on one hand looked like part of the definition of prostitution for the purposes of a bawdy house, but on the other, municipalities have licensed it. So, either municipalities have licensed prostitution, or the definition of prostitution for the purposes of criminal law is so uncertain that we don't know what it means."

Gorewich -- who stayed charges against Ricardo DiGiuseppe, the owner of Fantasia and Goddess, and seven employees on June 23 -- is expected to release a written decision in coming weeks.

More than 100 dancers, patrons and club employees also arrested in the same raids still face prostitution-related charges. York Regional Police report that all charges are pending and in the hands of Crown Attorney Robert Scott. Attempts to reach Scott were unsuccessful, but Crown Council Shelley Hallett says the Brass Rail ruling is being appealed and that Gorewich's decision will likely be appealed as well.

"It exceeds the community standard of tolerance to see women being purchased like a drink or some other material item," Hallett says. "I don't believe there has been a change in the law... but, apparently, a number of lower-court judges are taking that position. We will see how the Ontario Court of Appeal deals with the matter."

In the interim, Superintendent Aidan Maher, the head of 52 Division, says police will continue to lay charges.

"It will be business as usual," Maher says, "especially in light of the fact that we have not received any information from the Crown's office, officially, and No. 2, that they're appealing it."

Downtown strip clubs aren't talking about testing the fuzzy legal bounds, either. "We have a strict hands off policy here," says Wally Waterman, general manager of the Zanzibar Tavern. "If we see a girl leaving with a customer, she no longer works here."

Meanwhile, Toronto Police are tight-lipped about Operation Almonzo -- a joint-forces campaign targeting the sex trade at megacity strip clubs. Almonzo has been ongoing for the past year. About a dozen forces are involved, including Metro, Peel and Durham police the OPP and the RCMP.

Although no one seems to have the arrest statistics handy, an RCMP officer involved in the probe says it aims to close clubs by stripping away their licences.

"There have been hundreds of arrests," says RCMP constable Gerard Macadam. "They're looking at having the licences revoked. Just stopping them initially doesn't do a lot. It's when you can shut their business down. There are two stages: liquor licensing and adult entertainment. When you can get those two things revoked, then you can shut the club down."

Most recently, Operation Almonzo led to the arrest of more than 74 dancers, customers and staff in raids on three Peel Region strip clubs in the days leading up Gorewich's June decision.

A reported 300 cops took part in the raids, leading to more than 90 criminal charges at the Million Dollar Saloon, the Cannonball Tavern and Cabaret Locomotion.

"Why do 300 officers need to wear Darth Vader outfits to raid clubs that have a bunch of strippers sitting around in their underwear?" asks Mary Taylor, outreach coordinator for the Exotic Dancers Alliance of Ontario. "Nobody's clear on what the hell they're allowed to do and what they're not. We still get calls from dancers wanting to know whether they're allowed to lap dance or not. Well, I can't answer that question.

"We would like an equal playing field at all the clubs -- one rule so that everybody clearly understands what it is."

Clear rules or not, a Peel morality officer working the Almonzo beat says the raids will continue. "It's our understanding right from downtown that we're to continue laying the charges," says Inspector John Nielsen. "If somebody rules it's OK to have fellatio just because you're in a strip club, basically, are you condoning a brothel?

"Throughout the course of Almonzo, to the time of the last raid, if anything was taking place, the patrons were charged as found-ins. It's no different if any major city does john sweeps."

If dancers seem confused, it's because recent court rulings are going both ways. Late last year, Ken McKeigan, the manager of Remington's, a Toronto gay strip club, was found guilty of indecency and bawdy-house charges because he knew dancers were masturbating onstage.

The same day McKeigan was convicted, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it was legal to fondle table dancers. Quashing a 1998 Court of Appeal decision that found a Quebec strip-club manager guilty of keeping a common bawdy house, the Supreme Court decided that the Quebec club hadn't crossed a line of community standards by allowing patrons and peelers to touch.

"So when police go in and they see touching and kissing of a breast, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada says that's not indecent," says Manning. "Then they argued that prostitution, offering stimulating and sexual services for money, was illegal. And I pointed to the by-law, which says, 'Hey, you're allowed to do that.'

"So, what is the law? What is the judge supposed to do? Who is defining this? Well, no one is really defining this."

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