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What is the Mann Act?

Boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American to hold the world heavyweight title, was accused in 1912 of violating the Mann Act, a law meant to prohibit sex trafficking but once used as a weapon of racism. His alleged crime was the kidnapping of Lucille Cameron, a white woman whose relationship with Johnson was consensual (the two married in 1912). But the sinister intent of this and many other Mann Act prosecutions was to punish black men for violating the norms of white society.

The law, referred to as the "White-Slave Traffic Act" at the time, was amended a few times since its enactment in 1910 and is no longer used to justify the persecution of marginalized individuals. Below, we'll take a look at the Mann Act as originally passed and used by federal prosecutors, how it has changed through the years, related laws, and more.

What is the Mann Act: Progressive Era Legislation

Named for Illinois Congressman James Robert Mann, The Mann Act (in its original form) invoked the Commerce Clause in prohibiting the transportation across state lines of "...any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose..." As you can see from the wording, this law left plenty of room for interpretation (compared to its current iteration in the U.S. Code).

The racially charged term "white slavery" referred to women being kidnapped and forced into prostitution, overhyped through the wide circulation of pamphlets in 1909 about a "pervasive and depraved conspiracy" to "seduce Americans girls." Also leading up to the Mann Act was the trend of previously tolerant local governments shutting down brothels and other legally protected areas of prostitution. Meanwhile, women began to have much more autonomy over their careers and courtship activities.

In the background lurked Jim Crow laws and racist hysteria over black men "preying on" white women. Since interracial marriages (and romantic relationships in general) were still illegal at the time -- and wouldn't be overturned nationally until 1967 -- some prosecutors used the Mann Act to go after individuals such as Johnson, who was convicted in 1913 for his relationship with a white prostitute (Belle Schreiber). President Donald Trump pardoned Johnson posthumously in 2018.

The Mann Act also was used to prosecute men who had sexual relations with underage girls (the most common prosecution under the Act), those who had premarital sex, polygamists, adulterers, and homosexuals, as well as cases involving the abduction of women (its original stated intention). Violations were charged as felonies; women who consented to the relationship could be charged as accessories to the crime.

What is the Mann Act: Supreme Court Review and Legislative Amendments

The U.S. Supreme Court initially affirmed the broad reading of the Mann Act's "immoral purpose" phrase, ruling in 1917 (Caminetti v. United States) that "illicit fornication" constituted an "immoral purpose." Specifically, the Court affirmed that consensual extramarital sex is "immoral sex" and thus can be charged as a Mann Act violation. Other cases similarly upheld some of the law's broader provisions and definitions, although the Court decided in 1932 that a woman's consent isn't grounds for accessory charges.

The first major legislative change came in 1978, when Congress updated the definition of "transportation" and added protections for exploited minors of any gender (also including provisions targeting child pornography). Another amendment was enacted in 1986, further strengthening protections for minors and replacing the vagueness of the original language ("debauchery," "any other immoral purpose") with "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense."

Additional changes were made during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, but not as drastic as the 1986 amendment that essentially ended the Act's role in legislating morality.

What is the Mann Act: Charges and Penalties Today

To be charged with a federal offense under the Mann Act, you must have been involved in the transportation of an individual for the purposes of prostitution or any sexual activity that may be charged as a crime (which would include kidnapping, coercion, child pornography, child prostitution, or the transportation of a minor). Additionally, using the mail or telephone (or electronic communications) to facilitate such an act could be charged as a Mann Act violation as well.

Depending on the severity of the case, the criminal record of the defendant, and other factors, offenders may be sentenced to a fine and/or up to 10 years in prison. Other charges (such as kidnapping, solicitation, etc.) also could apply to the act giving rise to a Mann Act charge.

Other federal statutes may be invoked for the types of offenses addressed by the Mann Act, including the following:

Facing Charges Under the Mann Act or Another State or Federal Law? Get Legal Help Today

If you've been charged with a felony, it usually means you could be facing prison time or other very serious penalties if convicted. Whether you're facing Mann Act charges or something else, it's important to protect your interests by exercising your right to legal counsel. Get started today by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney near you.

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