Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Upholds Constitutionality of Sex Trafficking Statute

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that the recently-enacted sex trafficking law passes constitutional muster.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. McGhee

The two defendants were charged with numerous crimes, including aggravated rape, deriving support from the earnings of a prostitute, and sex trafficking.  Following their convictions on the sex trafficking indictments, the defendants appealed and argued that the law, which was passed in 2011, was unconstitutionally vague and violated their right to due process.

The evidence at trial established that the defendants approached three women and convinced them to work as prostitutes.  The first woman was leaving a Boston hospital after suffering two drug overdoses within a 24-hour period.  She had serious drug and alcohol problems and had received treatment at several medical facilities.  She ran into the defendants outside of the hospital and told them she wanted to party.  The defendants took her to an apartment, gave her crack cocaine, and drank with her.  The next morning, the defendants gave heroin to the woman and told her they had a plan to make money.  They took photographs of the woman wearing lingerie and posted the photos to a website that accepted advertisements.  One of the defendants included his phone number and soon thereafter, men started calling the defendant and wanting to meet with the woman.  The defendants determined that the woman would be sold for $100 for 30 minutes of sex or $150 for one hour of sex.  The defendants drove the woman to an apartment where she had sex with multiple men for money, which she gave to the defendants.  Five days after meeting the defendants, the woman called her father for a ride home.  She told him she had been raped and she was taken to the hospital for an examination.

The two other victims had similar experiences with the defendants.  The women were both enrolled at the methadone clinic and one of the women was homeless.  The defendants told them they could help them live a better life and arranged for them to have sex with men for money (a portion of which was taken by the defendants).  The women eventually left the defendants and went to the hospital, where they reported to the police that they had been forced into prostitution.

The defendants argued that the Massachusetts sex trafficking law was sufficiently vague in that it did not put them on notice about the conduct that constituted a crime.  The defendants correctly pointed out that the federal sex trafficking law requires that a defendant use force or coercion whereas force is not an element of the Massachusetts law.  Therefore, argued the defendants, the Massachusetts law unlawfully punishes people who simply assist consenting prostitutes.  The Supreme Judicial Court rejected the argument, noting that the words used in the statute are commonly understood and would have given fair notice to the defendants that their behavior was illegal.  Further, the Court noted that the Legislature determined that force was not necessary as long as the prosecution could prove that a defendant knowingly participated in the prohibited conduct.  In a case where the Commonwealth cannot prove a defendant knowingly assisted a prostitute in a way that violated the statute, the defendant cannot be convicted.