People v. Lamb


Issue: This appeal presented two questions about New York’s geographic jurisdiction to prosecute sex trafficking, which requires that a person advance or profit from prostitution by means of a number of specified coercive acts (Penal Law §230.34). The accused ran an escort service that solicited workers and customers over the internet in both New York and New Jersey. The first question presented was purely jurisdictional: Did the statute allow New York to prosecute sex trafficking when all of the coercive conduct occurred in New Jersey. The second question was related: Whether a supplemental jury instruction was proper where it allowed the accused to be found guilty of sex trafficking in New York if he promoted prostitution in New York, but that advancement or promotion of prostitution was untethered from the victim trafficked. 

Held: New York had geographic jurisdiction to prosecute, but the supplemental instruction was erroneous. 

CAL observes: The three-judge plurality opinion (written by Singas, joined by CJ Difiore & Cannataro) is internally inconsistent. Addressing the pure jurisdictional question in the broadest terms, the opinion explains that, so long as a person advances or profits from prostitution in New York, geographic jurisdiction to prosecute sex trafficking exists in New York, even though none of the coercive acts that amount to trafficking occurred in New York. But when the opinion addressed the supplemental instruction issue, it appeared to apply a different rule. The Court found that it was erroneous to instruct that a person is guilty of sex trafficking in New York if they advanced or profited from prostitution in New York, if that New York-based conduct was not related to the person trafficked outside New York. An instruction that the promoting of prostitution in New York need not be “specific” to the person trafficked was erroneous.  

As the dissent recognized (written by Wilson, joined by Rivera & Garcia), the majority’s conclusion that the supplemental instruction was wrong could not be reconciled with the majority’s implicit conclusion that New York had jurisdiction to prosecute defendant for sex trafficking. If the instruction was erroneous, then New York did not have the power to prosecute. 

The majority’s sole effort to reconcile these conclusions is unsatisfying and confusing. Addressing the jury-instruction question, the majority seemed to hold that the verdict would only have been valid if the jury found that defendant threatened a person in New Jersey with the goal of inducing her to join his New York prostitution operation. But this idea found no support in the evidence—a conclusion shown by the majority’s failure to even discuss it when addressing its conclusion that there was sufficient proof of geographic jurisdiction, which was seemingly grounded in its conclusion that no proof of effect or conduct in New York was necessary for geographic jurisdiction. 

The majority’s opinion presents another curiosity: its footnote 1 appears to contain the decision’s most important and novel statement of law, with no citation for authority: “the difference between venue and territorial jurisdiction of prosecution is the standard of proof by which the People must prove an element occurred in the jurisdiction.”