Monday, August 31, 2015

Sex Trafficking Not a Crime of Violence

US v. Fuertes: Fuertes and his codefendant, Ventura, were involved in an interstate prostitution scheme that operated in Maryland. After a jury trial they were both convicted of conspiracy, with Ventura additionally convicted of sex trafficking by force, fraud or coercion under 18 USC 1591(a), as well as possessing a firearm in connection with a crime of violence - the 1591 offense. Fuertes received a sentence of 215 months in prison, Ventura one of 420 months in prison.

On appeal the Fourth Circuit affirmed most of the convictions and Fuertes's sentence, on issues including evidentiary claims and sufficiency of the evidence. However, the court vacated Ventura's conviction on the firearm possession count (and, thus, his sentence). It concluded that 1591 was not a "crime of violence" predicate for the offense. It did so under a plain error standard because while Ventura had moved for a judgment of acquittal on that count he had not presented the legal argument (versus the factual one) that he presented to the Fourth Circuit. Nonetheless, the error was plain, affected his substantial rights, and was of the type the court decided to notice. Section 1591, the court held, was not divisible because "it contains a single indivisible set of elements," although it had many "alternative means of commission." It rejected the Government's argument that the offense was categorically violent even if committed via fraud because "there is still a substantial risk of physical injury from the prostitute's customers," holding that the relevant statutory language required that force be used during the commission of the offense: "the relevant inquiry is not whether there is risk of any person using force in any way tangentially related to an on-going offense, but rather whether there is a substantial risk of the defendant doing so."

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