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United States v. Palms.

No. 20-5072. N.D.Okla. Judge McHugh. Human Trafficking —Fourth Amendment—Warrant Particularity Requirement—Scope of Search—Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause—Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause—Fed. R. Evid. 412.

December 21, 2021

Defendant went on a few dates with M.W. He later told her that he was a pimp and he wanted her to make money for him. That evening, defendant assaulted M.W. in a hotel room. He then advertised her services online and began controlling every aspect of her life, including by requiring her to quit her jobs and work for him as a prostitute. Defendant required M.W. to give him all the money she earned and provided her little in return to support herself and her two children.

A police officer investigating online advertisements for suspected prostitution responded to one of M.W.’s ads and met her in a hotel room. The officer arrested M.W., and she identified defendant as her pimp. The officer also saw a text message from defendant on M.W.’s phone, and he arrested defendant in the hotel parking lot and seized his cell phone. The officer then obtained a search warrant to search the cell phone. After trying more limited extraction methods, the officer resorted to a broad physical extraction of all of the data, and searched SMS messages, MMS messages, photographs, and emails for evidence of human trafficking.

A federal grand jury charged defendant with sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion (count one); attempted obstruction of sex trafficking enforcement (count two); and retaliation against a victim and causing bodily harm (count three). Defendant filed a pretrial motion to suppress. Following a limited evidentiary hearing, the court denied the motion. The government filed a motion in limine under Fed. R. Evid. 412 requesting that the court prohibit defendant from introducing evidence that M.W. had engaged in commercial sex acts before she met him. The court granted the motion. Following a mistrial, the government obtained a second indictment adding additional charges for (1) transporting an individual for prostitution (count four) and (2) online promotion and facilitation of prostitution (count five). The trial court granted a motion for acquittal as to count five and sent the balance of the charges to the second jury. The jury acquitted defendant on count three, but found him guilty on counts one, two, and four.

Defendant argued on appeal that the district court erred in denying the motion to suppress because the warrant did not particularly describe the things to be seized and was therefore invalid under the Fourth Amendment. Here, the crime of “human trafficking” was sufficiently specific, and the warrant limited the search and seizure to evidence of human trafficking, so it satisfied the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement. Further, although the officer extracted all of the data on the phone, he moved on quickly when he came across information that was not potentially relevant to the crime of human trafficking, and he contacted the prosecutor when he discovered privileged attorney–client communications. The extraction and search methodology were therefore reasonable, and the district court did not err.

Defendant also argued that the district court abused its discretion under Rule 412 by granting the motion in limine because the order excluding evidence of M.W.’s prior engagement of commercial sex acts violated his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment and the Sixth Amendment Confrontation Clause. Under Rule 412, sexual behavior evidence may be admitted in a criminal case when the exclusion of the evidence would violate the defendant’s constitutional rights. Under the Confrontation Clause and the Due Process Clause, sexual behavior evidence may be admitted where it is relevant and probative on a central issue of sexual offense charges. Here, the excluded sexual behavior evidence was not relevant to or probative of a central issue in the case. Therefore, the Constitution did not require this general impeachment evidence to be admitted, and the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the evidence under Rule 412.

The convictions were affirmed.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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