Validation can come from unlikely places.
Federal sex trafficking prosecutors in Kansas City celebrated an appeals court ruling this week on two South Dakota cases. It confirmed a legal theory that originated in western Missouri but had not been fully tested.
Appeals judges decided for the first time that a federal anti-slavery law applies to both the consumers as well as the sellers of sex with children.
And just like pimps, johns now can receive sentences of up to life in prison if convicted under the Trafficking Victim Protection Act of 2000.
The decision Monday also was a relief for prosecutors in Kansas City. About a dozen defendants here have pleaded guilty to sex trafficking violations over the years and agreed not to appeal their convictions.
Had the appeals ruling found that the law didn’t cover johns, those defendants would have been back in court asking that their convictions be set aside. Such a ruling also could have raised questions about the guilty pleas of defendants linked to a Lebanon, Mo., man accused of forcing a woman to live in his home as a sex slave.
The South Dakota defendants, Daron Lee Jungers, 42, and Ronald Bonestroo, 59, stumbled into an investigation patterned on Operation Guardian Angel, a 2009 Kansas City effort that led to the convictions of seven men who tried to purchase sex with children.
In both cases, investigators placed online ads offering children for sex and waited to see who called.
In February 2011, two days apart, Jungers and Bonestroo each answered the ads, appeared at a Sioux Falls house and were arrested. Both admitted to investigators that they clearly understood that they were at the house to pay for sex with underage girls.
But while the Kansas City defendants, and a third South Dakota defendant, pleaded guilty ahead of trial, Jungers and Bonestroo put their cases before a jury and were convicted.
Their trial judges later acquitted them after studying the trafficking law, saying that it clearly didn’t apply to johns.
“The statute was not intended to criminalize a defendant who engages in a sex act with a child,” wrote Judge Karen E. Schreier, who heard Bonestroo’s case.
The government appealed. And in their ruling this week, the appeals judges put johns everywhere on notice: Even attempting to purchase sex with a minor makes you just as guilty as the trafficker who coerced the child into prostitution.
“The unambiguous text … makes no distinction between suppliers and purchasers of commercial sex acts with children, and the defendants have failed to persuade us Congress intended a supplier-only limitation or a purchaser exception,” the court ruled.