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Federal and State Charges for Prostitution

Sometimes called "the oldest profession," prostitution is a form of sex work known by many names and exists in many forms. The word prostitute can be used to refer to anyone, regardless of gender, who sells sexual acts for money — from streetwalkers to brothel employees, to sophisticated escort services or independent Internet entrepreneurs. However, regardless of what form the service takes, prostitution is criminalized in almost all fifty states.

State laws have expanded the definition to make it a crime for anyone to offer, agree to, or engage in a sexual act for compensation of any kind. This article provides a brief overview of federal and state charges for prostitution.

Prostitution is Illegal Nationwide -- Except for Nevada

Prostitution is illegal in all states except certain parts of Nevada, where it is strictly regulated. Some state statutes punish the act of prostitution, and other state statutes criminalize the acts of soliciting prostitution, arranging for prostitution, and operating a house of prostitution. Depending upon applicable state law, criminal charges can apply at various stages of a typical "transaction." Police could arrest and charge the provider of services (for "prostitution"), the customer paying for the services (for "solicitation of prostitution"), and anyone who brokers or profits from the transaction (for "pandering" or "sex trafficking").

In most states, offering sexual services or agreeing to provide those services in exchange for money is considered prostitution whether or not the services are provided. This makes enforcement and prosecution much easier because the sexual act does not have to be consummated for charges to be filed. Once a prostitute agrees to provide the service and accepts payment, an undercover police officer can make the arrest without actually completing the contemplated sexual act.

Prostitution Under Federal Law

The federal government largely leaves prosecution of prostitution up to the states. However, the federal government does seek to protect minors and addresses trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, both interstate and importation.

The Mann Act, enacted in 1910, was meant to prohibit the transportation of individuals across state lines for the purpose of paid sexual activity or debauchery, but over the years the Act has been amended and clarified. It makes it a crime to transport an individual in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent that the individual engage in prostitution or other illegal sexual activity (§ 2421). The federal government also prohibits prostitution near military establishments.

Solicitation of Prostitution

The person who pays for the sexual services (sometimes called "Johns") can face charges of solicitation of prostitution. Solicitation of prostitution is a crime involving a person's agreement to exchange money for sex. The agreement does not have to be explicit. A person's actions can be enough to demonstrate agreement. The solicitation charge can be enhanced by solicitation of prostitution to a minor, which could result in the misdemeanor charge becoming a felony.

The crime of solicitation of prostitution occurs at the moment the customer agrees to pay for a sexual act and takes some action to further that agreement. Solicitation can also be seen as encouraging someone to commit a crime. It does not matter if the crime ends up being committed or not. An action to further an agreement can be almost any act demonstrating a willingness to go through with the agreement, like withdrawing money from an ATM.

Penalties and Sentencing

Depending on the offense and the circumstance of the arrest, solicitation and prostitution are punished in most states by a minimal fine and jail time for the first offense. Often, penalties increase for subsequent convictions. Increasingly, enforcement actions have focused on those who import and profit from sex workers. Federal sex trafficking convictions can result in possible lengthy prison sentences and fines.

Decriminalization of Sex Work

On the other hand, human rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are pushing for further decriminalization of sex work for those who engage in consensual acts. They argue that the criminalization of prostitution enables those who victimize sex workers and profit from human trafficking.

Get Professional Help From a Criminal Defense Lawyer

A conviction for prostitution or solicitation can carry penalties ranging from fines to prison time, but it can also involve a social stigma that could be hard to leave behind. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime of prostitution or solicitation, hiring an attorney can make it difficult for the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you assess possible defenses, put your strongest case forward, or explore any plea bargain options that might be available.

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