A federal appeals court held Friday that prosecutors did not need to prove a defendant in a child sex-trafficking case knew his victim was under 18, if the defendant had “reasonable opportunity” to observe the underage victim.
In a case of first impression for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court rejected a bid by Devon Robinson to overturn his child sex-trafficking conviction. Robinson claimed the government had not proven he was aware that the girl wa s underage at the time of the crime of which he was accused.
Robinson was convicted in 2010 of trafficking a 17-year-old girl. She testified at Robinson’s trial in Brooklyn federal court that he was her boyfriend, not her pimp, and said she told “everybody” at the time that she was 19, according to the ruling.
The jury convicted Robinson of two counts of sex trafficking of a minor, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On appeal, he said the government could not prove he knew the girl’s age and therefore had not proven he recklessly disregarded this information.
Robinson and the government offered competing interpretations of Section 1591 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
That section was amended in 2008 to enable prosecution to convict someone of child sex trafficking if he had acted in “knowing, or in reckless disregard of the fact … that the person has not attained the age of 18 years and will be caused to engage in a commercial sex act.”
Robinson argued that the government had to prove that he had ample opportunity to observe the girl, and that he had recklessly disregarded her underage status. Prosecutors countered that they only had to prove one or the other.
The 2nd Circuit agreed with the government.
“Viewed in context, the most natural reading of this provision is that proof that the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to observe the victim may substitute for proof that the defendant knew the victim’s underage status,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes wrote in the opinion. He was joined by Judge Chester Straub.
In a brief concurring opinion, Judge Amalya Kearse said she would affirm Robinson’s conviction but was not persuaded by the majority’s interpretation of Section 1591.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to comment. Curtis Farber, an attorney who represented Robinson on appeal and has since been appointed as a judge in the Kings County Criminal Court, could not be immediately reached for comment.
The case is U.S. v. Robinson, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, No. 11-301.
For the U.S.: Sylvia Shweder and David James of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York