COMMONWEALTH NOT REQUIRED TO PROVE COERCION FOR CONVICTION OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING

In Commonwealth v. Dabney ( 2018), the SJC affirmed the defendant’s convictions of human trafficking and related offenses. In doing so, the SJC rejected the defendant’s contention “that his actions could not constitute human trafficking because they did not involve force or coercion, and the victim willingly engaged in prostitution.”

The facts are as follows. “Around the time the victim and the defendant started dating, the defendant encouraged the victim to begin prostituting herself…. Shortly after the defendant’s suggestion, the victim began prostituting herself on Pearl Street in Chelsea…. Together, the defendant and the victim determined the prices she would charge for various acts…. The victim gave all the money she earned from these encounters to the defendant…. Subsequently, thedefendant told the victim about a Web site called Backpage that they could use to advertise her services…. They then posted advertisements on Backpage, which included photographs of the victim’s body” taken by the defendant. At some point, the defendant began to act violently towards the victim. On one occasion, he “punched her in the face because she had not given him all of the money she had earned from prostitution.” Other violent episodes ensued, leading to the breakup of the relationship and the arrest and conviction of the defendant. On appeal, he “argued that the Commonwealth did not present sufficient evidence to prove beyond a  reasonable doubt that he was guilty of violating the ‘human trafficking’ or ‘sex trafficking’ statute.”

In its decision, the SJC quoted from the “sex trafficking statute which provides:  ‘Whoever knowingly: (i) subjects, or attempts to subject, or recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides or obtains by any means … another person to engage in commercial sexual activity …or causes a person to engage in commercial sexual activity … shall be guilty of the crime of trafficking of persons for sexual servitude….’” The Court noted that in Commonwealth v. McGhee, it had “observed that ‘the Legislature has determined that whether a person being trafficked for sexual servitude has been forced or coerced into engaging in such activities is immaterial for purposes of ascertaining whether a criminal act has been committed.’  The court in McGhee explained that use of the word ‘knowingly’ in the statutory language showed that the statute’s ‘clear and deliberate focus … is the intent of the perpetrator, not the means used by the perpetrator to accomplish his or her intent.’.”

Therefore, merely rendering assistance to “a consenting prostitute will still constitute the crime of sex trafficking.”  Here, the SJC said, “the jury could have found that the defendant ‘enticed’ and ‘recruited’ the victim to engage in prostitution” by encouraging her to engage in that activity and by helping her to advertise on Backpage. “Moreover, the plain and ordinary meaning of the actus reus in the human trafficking statute does not, as the defendant contends, necessarily ‘connote some level of inducement, manipulation, or coercion.’ For example, the dictionary definition of ‘entice’ is to ‘incite,’ ‘instigate,’ ‘draw on by arousing hope or desire,’ ‘allure,’ ‘attract,’ ‘draw into evil ways,’ ‘lead astray,’ or ‘tempt.’ …. None of these meanings implies force or coercion.”

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