A groundbreaking case, State of Washington v. Charles T. Peters, was decided in the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington with the opinion being filed on February 22nd, 2021. Peters, the defendant, began purchasing sex around 2010 or 2011. He identifies as an individual looking for both an emotional as well as a sexual experience from women who would provide what was described as “the girlfriend experience.” This “experience” has often been portrayed in the media as purchasing a “romatic” relationship. Peters typically purchased these “experiences” once or twice a week, particuarly targeting Korean women. He utilized a website, “The Review Board,” to locate information about women advertised on the website and frequently wrote reviews of his experiences with various women. The reviews were detailed, and often contained booking information with a hyperlink to the particular woman’s online advertisements; a review board then Seattle District Attorney Val Richey termed “yelp for prostitution.”
Peters also helped found a group called “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which often met, either online or in person, to discuss the purchasing of Korean women for sex in the Seattle area. A private internet discussion board was utilized by the group, with Peters serving as a moderator. In person meetings were also organized by Peters. He regularly connected prostitute persons to agency representatives or bookers, as well as recommended specific prostituted persons to customers. In addition, Peters expanded the sex buyer market by helping new customers pass screening processes. He often made “appointments” for customers. Peters contributed to the creation of an advertising website for Korean prostituted persons in the Seattle area. He was responsible for paying website hosting fees and posting advertisements for prostituted persons.
In 2015, the King County Sheriff’s Office and the Bellvue Police Department began a joint investigation into the online sex trade in the Seattle-Bellvue area. Detective Hillman went undercover by creating an account on The Review Board and targeted Peters as a manager of the website. Peters invited Detective Hillman, who was still undercover, to join the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This lead to Peters being charged with nine counts of promoting prostitution in the second degree. A jury convicted Peters on all nine counts, and he appealed his conviction.
The Court of Appeals affirms the lower court decision, determining that the state adequately established Peters knowingly advanced prostitution, meaning that he engaged in conduct designed to institute, aid, or facilitate an act or enterprise of prostitution, other than his conduct as a customer. Evidence presented showed that Peters frequently referred sex buyers to certain prostituted persons and agencies, he scheduled appointments, and gave prospective customers instructions about the screening processes. In addition, evidence showed he chose apartment complexes where buyers woud meet for sex, connected prostituted persons with bookers and agencies, and created and ran a website on which agencies and individual prostituted persons would post advertisements.
On appeal, Peters raised several claims of error including: (1) the charging document was constitutionally inadequate, (2) insufficient evidence supported his conviction because the state failed to prove that he was not acting as a customer, (3) the prosecution violated his First Amendment rights, (4) the promoting prostitution statute is unconstitutionally vague as applied to him, and (5) prosecutorial misconduct denied him a fair trial. The court determined that none of these contentions were meritorious and the information was sufficient for a reasonable finder of fact to determine that Peters knowingly advanced prostitution. This was deemed to be the case even if Peters had never purchased sex himself. The court also established that, because the speech used was intended to produce and likely to produce unlawful activity, the First Amendment does not afford protection to his speech. In addition, the court found that because conduct designed and intended to advance prostitution is prohibited, the standards to determine criminal conduct is sufficient, not unconstitutionally vague. The error on the part of the prosecuting attorney, in which a reference was made to “the standard,” was deemed insufficient to establish a reversible error due to Peters’s failure to show a substantial likelihood that this affected the jury’s verdict. For these reasons, the decision of the lower court was affirmed.
This decision is critical because it establishes promoting prostitution includes activity such as connecting sex buyers with prostituted people, either directly or through brothel owners, and assisting buyers with screening processes. The court clearly establishes that the First Amendment does not afford protections to this conduct and his actions clearly amounted to promoting prostitution, regardless of whether Peters was a customer at one point himself. This is a critical development in the law because it establishes the type of conduct by which a Washington court will likely find an individual guilty for promoting prostitution, beyond the scope of purchasing sex. Individuals who act similarly to Peters will not be able to argue their conduct fell within the scope of “customer behavior” in hopes to shield themselves from a conviction for promoting prostitution.
The CSE Institute commends the Seattle District Attorney’s Office for using the law to target the demand for commercial sex and hold sex buyers and traffickers accountable. We also encourage other jurisdictions mimick a similar approach by crimalizing the demand for commerciala sex and decriminalizing those in prositution who sell sex to survive.