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Daniel Medwed | Jan. 8, 2019

SJC Rules On Case Challenging The State's Prostitution Laws

The state Supreme Judicial Court, housed above at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston, is hearing a case that challenges the limits of charging a person as being an accessory to a crime.
Daderot via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Daniel Medwed | Jan. 8, 2019

The Supreme Judicial Court holds oral arguments in appellate cases from Sept. to May, typically during the first week of each month. WGBH's Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with Legal Analyst and Northeastern Law Professor Daniel Medwed to discuss what's on the January docket. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: Has the SJC recently handed down notable decisions you want to get your first here?

Daniel Medwed: Absolutely. I think the most notable recent decision concerns a Massachusetts law that punishes people for profiting from sex trafficking — so-called pimps. Specifically, this law has been on the books for more than a century. It makes it a crime to quote "derive support or maintenance from the earnings of a known prostitute."

So, what happened here is that a man named Jonathan Brown was caught up in a sting operation outside of a Saugus hotel and, get this, $250 in cash was found stuffed in his sneaker, the same $250 used by an undercover officer to arrange for a prospective sexual encounter. Brown was charged and convicted under this statute, and then he later challenged it all the way up the food chain to the SJC.

Mathieu: And are you're going to tell me the basis for the challenge?

Medwed: The basis for the challenge was a claim that the statute is unconstitutionally vague. That there's no reference to the word pimp anywhere in the statute, and that if reasonably construed, the plain meaning of the statute could result in bizarre outcomes. Let's say a child receives food from a parent who's a known prostitute. Is that a crime? A doctor provides medical services to a known prostitute. Is that a crime? A merchant provides goods, and so on. In jurisprudence, this is called a void for vagueness challenge, where a defendant claims that a statute is so unclear, so untethered to the specific details, that it fails to put citizens on notice about what is or is not prohibited, and therefore it's unconstitutional.

Mathieu: The way you describe it makes it sound like a bit of a reach. How did the SJC rule?

Medwed: The SJC agree in a unanimous seven-zip decision. The SJC shut down the defense claim, and upheld the conviction. Basically what the SJC did was it looked at the legislative history and context of this statute and determined that it was targeted at people who have the intention to profit from the sex trade, not people who are incidental beneficiaries, like the child, or the doctor, or the merchant that I just mentioned. But what's really interesting about this case, I think if you take sort of the bird's eye view, is it shows how the precise wording, the precise language of a statute can trigger litigation, even decades, maybe a century after its passage.

Mathieu: We're talking with Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed about recent developments at the SJC. So I mentioned January, so now we shift to this week's arguments. Daniel, what are the most significant cases here on the docket?

Medwed: Well, the one that caught my eye from this week's docket concerns what it takes to be found guilty of being an accessory after the fact of a crime. Now criminal culpability can usually be divided into three categories. You're either the principal, say the bank robber, or an accomplice, say someone who provides a gun to the bank robber in advance, or an accessory after the fact, someone who launders the proceeds of that robbery. Here what happened, is that a guy named Christopher Rivera was in a 7-Eleven parking lot in Jamaica Plain with his friend Henry Soto. A brawl ensued, and Soto stabbed someone to death. Police started investigating. They interrogated Rivera who denied being at the crime scene and was generally less than forthcoming with the details. Rivera was then charged with being an accessory after the fact to the murder. The theory being that his obfuscation basically thwarted the investigation and assisted Soto in delaying prosecution.

Mathieu: How do you think this will play out with the SJC then?

Medwed: I think that the SJC will possibly, quite possibly, reverse it, because it strikes me as a real stretch by the prosecution. Typically to be an accessory after the fact, you have to provide concrete help, like as I mentioned a moment ago, helping to launder the proceeds of a robbery. Here it seems like everything Rivera did was designed to divert attention from himself, not assist his friend. But hey, it's easy to say these things from behind a microphone. I'm not on the bench.

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