A King County Superior Court judge has ruled that the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office did not have a conflict of interest with a national anti-prostitution group when prosecutors pursued charges against men arrested in the shutdown of a popular sex work reviewing website, The Review Board (TRB).
Earlier this year, lawyers for one of these men, Charles Peters, asked that the King County Prosecuting Attorney's office be disqualified from pursuing his case. Peters had been accused of promoting prostitution in the second degree, a felony, for his role in what law enforcement called "The League," a group of elite TRB reviewers who allegedly ran their own websites for exchanging reviews and posting sex work ads. At the time, prosecutors called the charges "unprecedented." Peters' lawyers request to dismiss the case because of a conflict of interest was also unprecedented, in a sense. No King County prosecutor has been barred from doing his or her job due to a conflict of interest in recent memory.
Still, the defense attorneys' argument relied on thousands of documents showing an extensive relationship between the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office and Demand Abolition, a national anti-prostitution group. The office, these documents showed, received more than $140,000 worth of grant money from Demand Abolition, much of which was used to fund a portion of senior deputy prosecuting attorney Val Richey's salary.
But the grant money, as grants do, came with strings attached. As part of its strategy for reducing "demand" for paid sex, as Demand Abolition's grant application requested, the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office outlined a strategy to increase sex buyer prosecutions, arrests, penalties and publicity of these cases. They pledged to achieve "14,800 direct buyer disruptions" by 2017. Within the first two years of the grant, charges for second-degree "promoting prostitution" in King County quadrupled.
In a ruling issued on Friday, King County Superior Court Judge John Chun found that Peters' lawyers did not prove a conflict of interest, in that they did not prove that the Prosecuting Attorney's relationship with Demand Abolition "materially limit[ed] the prosecutor’s ability to make judgments free from improper influences."
Judge Chun noted that, while Demand Abolition funded a portion of Val Richey's salary, his salary would not disappear in the absence of the grant. Plus, prosecutors are not held to the same standard that judges are when it comes to the appearance of fairness. Impartiality is not required for prosecutors under Washington State law.
"Mr. Richey has no apparent financial or personal stake in the outcome," Chun wrote. "Neither the KCPAO nor Mr. Richey will receive any extra funds for their decision to prosecute Mr. Peters or due to the outcome of the case."
Chun also wrote that much of the grant strategy relied on the promise of "disruptions" to the online sex trade, "the vast majority of which occur online rather than in the justice system." (By this he means the Prosecuting Attorney's Office pursuing Facebook ads that railed against the online sex trade.) He also noted that the Prosecuting Attorney's Office interest in pursuing an "end demand" strategy began before the actual grant with Demand Abolition.
"It is true that the grant application included goals for arrests and prosecutions as well as demand reduction," Chun wrote. "However, arrests are the domain of law enforcement agencies, not the Prosecutor’s Office. More prosecutions are a necessary consequence of law enforcement’s focus on demand and the resulting increase in arrests."
Chun continued: "Additionally, the figures were not binding. The application specifically states that such goals 'are not required or expected.'"
"We're very disappointed with the ruling," Peters' attorney, Jim Dixon, told The Stranger. "While we're confident that a jury will do the right thing, we had been hoping to avoid an unnecessary trial." Dixon is considering an appeal.
Chun additionally wrote in his ruling that the decision he issued on Friday did not concern the "merits or demerits of criminalizing prostitution-related activities." But even outside of the "conflict of interest" debate, the strategy pursued by the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office does raise questions about whether it actually benefits the public. Why is the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office pursuing an "end demand" approach when both Amnesty International and the World Health Organization say criminalizing this aspect of the sex trade puts sex workers at greater risk of violence and disease?
As the King County Prosecuting Attorneys have said before, their strategy stems from a belief that cracking down on demand will save victims of sex trafficking. They are not the only ones. Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation that makes it a federal crime to use a computer to "promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person," effectively making online tools sex workers use to screen their clients illegal. In response to the new legislation, Craigslist shut down its personals section, and on Friday, federal authorities seized Backpage.com, which hosts sex ads.
Sex worker advocates have repeatedly said that crackdowns like these endanger them more, and will force those who once advertised and screened their clients online to work on the streets, where they have less control over their clientele. We may soon see whether this comes true not just on a local, but on a national, scale.
Peters' next hearing in court comes a week from this upcoming Friday. Read Judge Chun's full ruling here.