Gang membership relevant to sex trafficking charge

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//December 4, 2019

Gang membership relevant to sex trafficking charge

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//December 4, 2019

Appellants’ convictions for drug, weapon and sex offenses are affirmed because the evidentiary issues he raises on appeal do not warrant a new trial.


The evidence at trial, taken in a light most favorable to the commonwealth as the prevailing party, was as follows: J.C., the government’s key witness in appellant’s prosecution, had been convicted of possessing heroin, had addiction problems and had no money when she met appellant. He let her stay in his hotel room and supplied her with drugs for a few days, then sent her out to have sex for money. He advertised her services online and took all the money she earned. This went on for several weeks. The couple moved from hotel to hotel until appellant was arrested.

J.C. complied with appellant’s instructions and did not seek help because she was afraid of him. He told her he was a “general” in a gang called the Bloods.

The police raided a hotel room that J.C. rented at appellant’s direction. As the police knocked, appellant hid drugs. He asked J.C. to take his gun. When she refused, he hid it behind the toilet. Police observing the hotel saw a man hanging from a third-floor window, being held by a woman. When an officer went to the area, the man was gone but other people directed him to appellant, who denied being in the hotel.

He was arrested on an outstanding warrant. His phone had a text message from someone alerting him that the police were knocking on the door. He had a room key to the hotel and $600.

The police returned to the room. J.C. gave permission to search. The police found the gun, drugs and a written history of the Bloods. Some of the drugs were found hidden underneath an artificial plant. Appellant later said he jumped from the window to avoid arrest on the outstanding warrant.

Appellant was convicted of possession with intent to distribute drugs, possessing a firearm, receiving money from prostitution and sex trafficking.

Gang membership

Appellant argues that evidence of his gang membership was inadmissible. The court disagrees.

Appellant was charged with commercial sex trafficking. The commonwealth “needed to prove appellant used ‘force, intimidation, or deception’ in causing J.C. to engage in prostitution. … J.C.’s testimony was directly relevant to prove that she was intimidated into prostitution because appellant told her he was a ‘general’ in the Bloods.

“She testified that she feared him because of it, that she understood him to be saying that he had underlings in the organization who would do his bidding, and that he might beat her or have her killed if she didn’t continue to prostitute herself at his demand.” This evidence was properly admitted.

Earlier drug deals

“Appellant claims the trial court should have permitted him to cross-examine J.C. about her alleged drug dealing before meeting appellant and how she hid her drugs in plants like some of the drugs found in the hotel room were hidden. He claims that … because she had a history of dealing drugs, she needed to throw suspicion off herself, lest the police charge her with dealing drugs.”

However, “the jury already knew that J.C. was convicted of felony possession of heroin, that she was a heroin addict, that she still had a suspended sentence hanging over her head, and that she, by her own admission, had been in the hotel room with the drugs. Thus, although J.C.’s earlier drug dealing has some probative value, that probative value is far less than in Banks [v. Commonwealth, 16 Va. App. 959 (1993)], where the excluded evidence of a motive to fabricate was the only evidence of a motive to fabricate.”


To prove the sex trafficking charge, the commonwealth needed to show that “appellant used ‘force, intimidation, or deception’ to cause J.C. to engage in prostitution. Appellant contends J.C.’s history of prostitution before meeting appellant was relevant to disproving this element of the offense. Central to appellant’s argument is the idea that if J.C. voluntarily engaged in prostitution before meeting appellant, then appellant couldn’t have intimidated J.C. into engaging in prostitution.

“Appellant’s argument is flawed. Appellant’s argument assumes that once a woman voluntarily engages in a single commercial sex act, every later commercial sex act is also voluntary. The purpose of Code § 18.2-357.1(B) is to prevent an individual from being forced, intimidated, or deceived into engaging in commercial sex acts. Thus, whether J.C. had engaged in prostitution before is not the issue. Rather the question is whether appellant caused her, through intimidation, to engage in the commercial sex acts at issue.”

Sufficient evidence

Appellant argues J.C.’s testimony was not credible. He “points to nothing in the record that falsifies J.C.’s testimony. Rather, he addresses alleged deficiencies in the police investigation and corroboration of her testimony. Mere deficiencies in the police investigation, although relevant to the factfinder when weighing the evidence, do not make a witness’ testimony so “contrary to human experience” to be unbelievable. Moreover, appellant essentially concedes that – if J.C. were credible – her testimony is sufficient to support his convictions.

“Nevertheless, even if corroboration were required, appellant’s jumping from a third story window, in order to flee his drug-laden room, corroborated J.C.’s testimony that appellant knew of and possessed the drugs in the hotel room. …

“When coupled with appellant’s confession to jumping out the hotel room window, J.C.’s testimony is not so contrary to human experience to be unworthy of belief. Therefore, the evidence is sufficient to support appellant’s convictions, and this Court affirms.”

Lambert v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0773-18-2, Oct. 15, 2019. CAV (Huff) from Chesterfield Cir. Ct. (Rockwell). C. David Sands for appellant, Eugene Murphy for appellee. VLW 019-7-175, 16 pp. Published.

VLW 019-7-175

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