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SJC upholds human trafficking law designed to target pimps

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that a man caught in a human trafficking sting by police with $250 in cash in his shoe was a pimp and should be prosecuted as one.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2018/Globe Staff/file

The state’s high court Tuesday upheld a law making it a crime to profit from prostitution, ruling that a man caught in a human trafficking sting by police with $250 in cash in his shoe was a pimp and should be prosecuted as one.

In the 7-0 ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court noted a historical oddity: While “pimp” is commonly understood to mean a person who profits by exploiting others, the word itself has never appeared in the state laws targeting them.

Writing for the court, Justice Scott L. Kafker said the lack of that word does not make the law unconstitutional because anyone who reads the statute understands that it is aimed at those who engage in human trafficking by sexually exploiting the vulnerable.


“For over a century the Commonwealth has outlawed living off of or otherwise sharing in money earned by a known prostitute,” Kafker wrote. “The [new] statute plainly targets third parties who knowingly derive their livelihood or otherwise profit from prostitution. In common vernacular and understanding, the statute appears to target ‘pimps.’ ”

The court upheld Jonathan E. Brown’s 2017 conviction for deriving support from prostitution. In court papers, Brown argued that the law was vaguely written that even a child who eats a sandwich made by his mother who is a sex worker should be prosecuted because the woman used proceeds of a sex transaction to buy food.

The court vigorously disagreed.

“Because a pimp knowingly and intentionally profits from the prostitution of another, he or she differs from the child of a sex worker, a local merchant who sells food to a known sex worker, or a medical professional who provides a sex worker with counselling services,” Kafker wrote.

None of those people, who technically may be in violation of the law, qualify as the type of person Massachusetts lawmakers have declared to be criminals since at least 1910, Kafker wrote. “Unlike a pimp, they lack the intention to profit from the prostitution of another,’’ he wrote.


The court upheld Brown’s Lynn District Court conviction for deriving support from prostitution and the mandatory two-year prison sentence that followed. Brown, the court noted, “accompanied a woman to a prearranged prostitution transaction and was caught, immediately after leaving the scene with that woman, with the entire proceeds of the transaction hidden in his shoe.”

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, in court papers, had urged the SJC to reach the decision it did, identifying the law in question as one law enforcement uses frequently as they target human traffickers who compel their victims into prostitution.

“The statute provides a valuable tool for prosecutors in combating the social harms caused by those who make money from commercial sexual exploitation,’’ Healey’s office wrote in a brief.

Brown was arrested in 2012 in Saugus and was convicted of the charge in 2014, but that verdict was overturned in a 2017 ruling by the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Essex County prosecutors tried him again last December — and a jury convicted him again, according to the court.

John R. Ellement can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.