Prostitutes arrested in West Virginia cannot be charged with a felony after a ruling from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
The West Virginia justices have reversed a decision that made the third offense of prostitution a felony against the prostitute.
The ruling comes after an appeal by Belinda Fuller, who was arrested for third-offense prostitution. The charge did come with a one to three-year state prison sentence. The vote tally for the ruling was 3-2.
Wednesday, the court ruled that the third or subsequent felony offense doesn’t apply to a person who engages in an act of prostitution.
“With the decision, she has a felony off of her record and most importantly, obviously, she is being released from jail,” said Russell Cook, Fuller’s public defender.
The court documented that third or subsequent felony offense provision only applies to the third parties who financially benefit from the earnings of a prostitute. Examples from the Supreme Court of Appeals include a pimp, panderer, solicitor or operator.
According to the court documents, the court found the third offense provision in WV to be “ambiguous” causing the court to reverse the circuit court’s order from February 2016 that denied Fuller’s motion to dismiss the indictment charging her with a felony offense.
The opinion encourages the Legislature to take a closer look at the statute to provide clarity given it has multiple interpretations.
Meanwhile, Cabell County Prosecutor Corky Hammers would like to see the third offense language apply to prostitutes, as well. “We need to lobby for a change,” Hammers said. “I would assume that the Legislature wants prostitutes who are continuously out there committing these crimes, I would say that by the time they commit a third time or subsequent time they would want it to be a felony offense.”
Hammers is unsure of how this will play out with prior convictions but says those offenders will likely have to be released or re-charged with a lesser crime.
The other unknown is the future of Huntington’s Women’s Empowerment and Addiction Recovery (WEAR) Program.
The program, which began in 2015 as an extension of the Cabell County drug court through a grant, helps women who’ve turned to prostitution to feed their drug habit.
Hammers says an offender must be charged with a felony to be eligible for the program. He is unsure of what will happen now after the ruling.
According to court documents, the court says it is undisputed that a prostitute who offers to commit an act of prostitution can be charged with first and second offenses in West Virginia Code.
The third offense is a felony offense that ““shall only apply to the pimp, panderer, solicitor, operator or any person benefiting financially or otherwise from the earnings of a prostitute.”