HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — An alleged repeat prostitute in the Mountain State cannot be charged with a felony crime, according to a ruling from the West Virginia Supreme Court.
In a 3-2 decision Wednesday, the Court dismissed a 3rd offense prostitution charge dating back to Feb. 2015 that was filed against Belinda Ann Fuller in Cabell County.
She was represented by Russell Cook, a public defender, who successfully challenged a statute that had been in effect since 1943.
In 1st and 2nd offenses, “it is a misdemeanor crime for any person to engage in the act of prostitution,” the Supreme Court found.
The opinion continued, “The 3rd or subsequent felony offense provision contained in W.Va. Code 61-8-5(b) does not apply to a person who engages in an act of prostitution. Instead, the 3rd or subsequent felony offense provision only applies to 3rd parties who financially benefit from the earnings of a prostitute, such as a pimp, panderer, solicitor, or operator.”
“As of right now, I believe, unless there’s some other statute I’m not aware of, there really isn’t a felony prostitution charge any longer,” said Tom Peyton, a Nitro attorney and legal consultant for MetroNews, of the decision.
Justice Menis Ketchum wrote the majority opinion, identifying ambiguity in the law. In that case, the law of lenity applies, requiring the Court to interpret the law “against the State and in favor of Defendant Fuller,” the opinion said.
The Supreme Court’s dissenting votes came from Chief Justice Allen Loughry and Justice Beth Walker.
Loughry wrote the following in his dissent: “Ignoring clear statutory language and engaging in a convoluted analysis, the majority of this Court has gone out of its way to manufacture a non-existent ambiguity in the prostitution statute.”
“Moreover,” he continued,” Even under the majority’s misguided analysis, there is no justification for an outright dismissal of the petitioner’s indictment.”
Jim Johnson, director of the Huntington Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said prostitution has changed over the years.
“It’s not like it was in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when women had pimps. Now, their pimp is the heroin, the opiate addiction,” said Johnson, a retired Huntington Police officer who brings three decades worth of police experience to his current role.
“The recidivism rate would be extremely high for people in prostitution.”
It was not immediately clear what the Court’s ruling would mean for an addiction treatment and recovery program operating within Cabell County’s Drug Court specifically for people convicted of felony prostitution and other sex crimes.
Grant funding for Cabell County’s Women’s Empowerment and Addiction Recovery Program, or W.E.A.R., hinges on services being provided to people convicted of felony crimes for trafficking or prostitution, not misdemeanors.
“They give them all of the wraparound services, more of an expanded (effort), dealing with not just the symptoms, but the causes of addiction and prostitution,” Johnson explained.
Going forward, Johnson said Cabell County officials would be seeking clarification from the federal government on how to proceed with W.E.A.R. following the state ruling.