Category Archives: Prostitution

Backpage.com Evidence Admitted at Trial as “Business Record.”

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In State v. Butler, the WA Court of Appeals decided a trial court rightfully admitted business records connecting showing the defendant used Backpage.com to facilitate the commercial sexual abuse of a minor because the State’s failure to provide the written notice of the evidence did not prejudice the defendant, who was given the business records months before trial.

BACKGROUND FACTS

N.C. was 14 years old when she first met 22-year-old defendant Ivory Butler. One day, N.C. skipped school and spent the day with Butler. N.C.’s mother found out she had skipped school and punished her. N.C. ran away from home, and Butler picked her up. He took her to a motel room and arranged for her to meet men at the motel for sex. She gave the money she received to Butler. N.C. continued selling sexual services and giving the money to Butler.

Detective Raymond Unsworth found Internet ads on Backpage.com for female escort services with Butler’s phone number listed as the contact number. The ads included photographs of the body, but not the face, of a young woman. The ads alluded to sexual services that would be provided, with the prices that would be charged.

An undercover detective responded to the Backpage ads by contacting Butler’s phone number. The detective, posing as a customer, arranged to obtain sexual services for $300 from a woman in room 201 of the New Horizon Motel. Police found N.C. in that room, together with a disposable cellphone under the mattress, condoms in a Crown Royal bag, and a knife in the bedside table drawer.

In Butler’s phone, the contact name assigned to the disposable phone found in the motel room was “Money Baby Money Baby.” Text messages between Butler’s phone and the disposable phone found in the motel room included details about providing sexual services for money. The messages also included instructions from Butler to N.C. to discard the phone in the toilet if the police came. Butler was arrested and charged under RCW 9.68A.101 with promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor.

The Trial Exhibits

At trial, the State sought to admit three exhibits. Exhibits #3 and #4 relate to Backpage ads for escort services. Exhibit #5 was the certification from the Backpage records custodian. Detective Unsworth testified that he found the ads on Backpage’s public website. Each ad included photographs of a young woman, information about the sexual services that could be provided, the price, and Butler’s telephone number as the contact.

Exhibits #3 and #4 compiled the ads that were online, more photographs that Detective Unsworth had not seen online, the date each ad was posted, and the poster’s fictitious name, mailing address, and e-mail address. Backpage provided the certification from its records custodian in response to a search warrant for business records.

The State provided these exhibits to Butler months before trial as part of discovery. The trial court admitted the exhibits over Butler’s objection.

The jury found Butler guilty as charged. On Appeal, Butler argues the Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were wrongfully admitted.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND DECISION

Butler argues Exhibits #3, #4 and #5 were inadmissible because the State did not give proper notice under RCW 10.96.030(3). This statute contains an exception to the general rule requiring witness testimony to admit business records. To ensure the opposing party has a fair opportunity to challenge the business records and certification, the statute provides in part:

“A party intending to offer a record into evidence under this section must provide written notice of that intention to all adverse parties, and must make the record and affidavit, declaration, or certification available for inspection sufficiently in advance of their offer into evidence to provide an adverse party with a fair opportunity to challenge them.”

The court reasoned that approaching these issues is similar to approaching the child hearsay rule: basically, cases addressing the child hearsay statute have upheld the admission of statements without prior notice “so long as the adverse party had or was offered an opportunity to prepare to challenge the statements.”

Here, Butler argued the State was required to provide a separate written notice to inform him that it intended to rely on RCW 10.96.030 for admission of the business records. But months before trial, the State provided the certification of the Backpage records custodian, together with the Backpage business records. Mid-trial, the State also offered to produce the custodian for live testimony and a defense interview. This allowed Butler ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the records. With that, the Court denied Butler’s arguments:

“Consistent with the cases addressing the child hearsay statute, we conclude the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause any prejudice to Butler. He had ample opportunity to prepare to challenge the business records when the State provided all of the proposed business records and the certification from the records custodian months prior to trial.”

Moreover, the Court reasoned that the State offered to call the records custodian as a witness and to allow Butler to interview the custodian. However, Butler declined to request a continuance to interview the witness.

Finally, the Court of appeals rejected arguments that the Backpage ads bolstered N.C.’s testimony tying Butler to the Backpage evidence. The Court reasoned that even without the admission of the Backpage ads, overwhelming evidence links Butler to his exploitation of N.C.:

“The physical evidence, text messages, jail phone calls, testimony from N.C., and successful undercover sting operation provide overwhelming evidence that Butler promoted the prostitution of N.C.”

Consequently, the Court concluded that the lack of written notice required by RCW 10.96.030 did not cause prejudice to Butler. Overwhelming evidence supported Butler’s guilt.

Prostitution Evidence Admitted During Defendant’s Assault Trial.

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In State v. Woods, the WA Court of Appeals held that evidence that the defendant prostituted the victim was properly admitted in his prosecution for second degree assault by strangulation. These prior acts were necessary to explain to the jury why the victim was fearful of seeking help from her family or from the police.

BACKGROUND FACTS.

The Defendant Euran Woods and victim BrittanyEnglund began their volatile relationship in 2009. At that time, Woods and Englund sold drugs together and Englund herself was addicted to drugs. As Englund’s drug addiction grew, so did her dependency on Woods— who exploited this dependency to isolate Englund from her friends and family. In addition to being emotionally abusive, Woods physically abused Englund throughout their relationship.

In 2011, Woods began forcing Englund to prostitute herself. He conditioned Englund to comply with his demands by convincing her that her life of prostitution was only temporary and that one day they would both have normal jobs and be happy together.

Englund argued with Woods regarding the prostitution several times. On one occasion in August of 2011, Woods strangled Englund until she passed out. Englund did not inform the police or her family of the abuse or prostitution both out of fear that Woods would retaliate and because she felt that Woods loved her and was sorry.

However, Woods strangled Englund again in September of 2011 after she discovered  he had been taking suggestive pictures with other women. Woods threw Englund across the room, kicked her, stomped on her, and strangled her until she passed out. Woods later apologized to Englund, who decided to not call the police.

In April of 2012, Woods again assaulted Englund. Her mother drove her to the hospital. Englund disclosed the 2011 assaults for the first time during a subsequent interview with a police detective.

THE CHARGES, JURY TRIAL & BASIS FOR APPEAL.

Woods was charged with one count of assault in the second degree for the September 2011 strangulation, with a special allegation of domestic violence pursuant to RCW 10.99.020.

During trial, the court admitted evidence of the August 2011 strangulation and the prostitution evidence. It determined that such evidence was admissible because it aided the jurors in understanding the nature of the relationship, motive, and intent, and helped to illuminate the victim’s state of mind.  The trial court also noted that—in matters dealing with domestic violence—testimony regarding prior assaults may assist the jury in understanding the dynamics of the domestic violence relationship and in assessing the victim’s credibility.

The jury found Woods guilty. He timely appealed. Although his attorney filed an Anders brief on arguments that the appeal was frivolous, the WA Court of Appeals nevertheless granted review to resolve the issues presented.

THE COURT’S REASONING AND CONCLUSION.

ER 404(b) Evidence

The Court of Appeals illustrated that under ER 404(b), evidence of a defendant’s prior bad act is not admissible to prove the defendant’s character and to show action in conformity therewith. However, such evidence may be admissible for other purposes, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice. For evidence of a prior bad act to be admissible, a trial judge must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect.

Under this analysis, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s rulings herein werecorrect. Englund’s testimony as to how Woods forced her into prostitution and why she was unable to escape was necessary for the jurors to understand the dynamics of this domestic violence relationship. Furthermore, Woods’ forced prostitution of Englund was a source of shame and fear for Englund and was an important factor in understanding why she refused to seek help from her friends, family, and the police.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Court illustrated how Constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel is established only when the defendant shows that (1) counsel’s performance, when considered in light of all the circumstances, fell below an objectively reasonable standard of performance, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Under this analysis, the Court rejected Wood’s arguments that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the admission of the prostitution evidence.  It reasoned there was nothing objectionable about this evidence because it was properly admitted pursuant to ER 404(b). Moreover, Woods’ counsel expressly deferred an objection to the prostitution evidence after stating that he viewed that evidence as presenting a valuable area for cross examination: “Rather, the record demonstrates that a tactical decision was made.”

Woods also believed he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to request a limiting instruction regarding the prostitution evidence. However, the Court of Appeals held this was also a strategic decision on the part of Woods’ defense attorney: “Defense counsel argued to the jury that Woods did not cause Englund’s injuries. Rather, he posited, those injuries could have been a result of Englund’s prostitution.” Thus, deficient performance was not established.

With that, the COurt of Appeals held that Woods was not prejudiced and upheld his conviction.