The West Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments from a Cabell County defense attorney who says sex workers cannot be charged with felony offenses under West Virginia law. Herald News Article Re/Post Reporter : Courtney Hessler. West Virginia penalties for people engaging in acts and solicitation of prostitution are misdemeanors upon first and second conviction. The charge becomes a felony upon third-offense conviction. The punishment for a felony conviction is one to three years’ imprisonment.West Virginia code for third-offense solicitation of an act of prostitution states the “provision shall apply only to the pimp, panderer, solicitor, operator or any person benefiting financially or otherwise from the earnings of a prostitute.” Cabell County defense Attorney Russell Cook argues the felony criminal offense was established only against third parties who derive a financial benefit of prostitution, not the sex workers themselves. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on May 2. The case comes from the 2015 plea made by Belinda Ann Fuller. Cook asked Cabell Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell to dismiss felony charges against Fuller on the argued grounds. Farrell denied Cook’s motion, stating his client had benefited financially from the transaction and thus could be charged as a felon. Cook argues Farrell erred in his ruling. “When viewing the section in its entirety,” Cook wrote, “it is clear that the legislature intended different penalties for alleged (sex workers) and for third parties who were deriving income from their acts.” Cook argues the felony offense was created to punish individuals who were deriving their living from the sexual acts of young women who were forced into prostitution against their will.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey agreed with Farrell’s ruling, stating Cook’s client had benefited from the act by agreeing to $20 in exchange for oral sex.
“The broad phrase ‘any person benefiting financially’ should not be limited to artificially exclude the most obvious financial beneficiary of an act of prostitution: the (sex worker) themselves,” Morrisey wrote. Cook argued the woman had not financially benefited from the transaction because she was arrested before any money changed hands, a theory Morrisey rejected. [He] said no evidence was presented that the $20 for sex would have gone to the benefit of another person other than Cook’s client. “Not applying the subsequent offense provision to prostitutes themselves, when they benefit financially from their activities, would be to impose no sentence on a prostitute for any conviction after (a) second, no matter how egregious the (sex worker’s) behavior might have been,” he wrote.Cook also noted that surrounding states, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania, all charge sex workers with misdemeanor offenses in typical cases. Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.