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Buying Sex in Texas: Solicitation of Prostitution and Law Enforcement Focus on “John Stings”

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It’s all about supply and demand.  Consider this:  Las Vegas will host Super Bowl VVIII on Sunday, February 11, 2024.  However, “football’s biggest week” really begins the prior Monday with Super Bowl Opening Night at Allegiant Stadium with the only public appearance of the two competing teams until they take the field for the big game.  Stuff is scheduled every day during Super Bowl Week.  It’s a huge deal.  For details, read the NFL’s online Super Bowl LVIII – Event Info Overview.

Just like the rest of the country, most criminal defense lawyers will be watching the game.  Lots of folk may be excited to watch Usher’s Super Bowl 58 Halftime show (and maybe catching glimpses of Taylor Swift if the Chiefs become AFC champions).

Weaved throughout all this brouhaha, however, not only for those dedicated to representing people accused of illegal activity here in Texas and elsewhere, but for most law enforcement and prosecutorial offices, are the inevitable Super Bowl arrests that will be made based upon sex crimes and allegations of human trafficking.

This is because the Super Bowl is notorious for an increase in human trafficking, specifically involving prostitution, each year.  Of course, Nevada brings its own twist to this story with its legalization of prostitution.  Nevertheless, the temptation to bust people for sex crimes and trafficking itself will undoubtedly encourage law enforcement to find ways to make arrests during Super Bowl week.

Consumer demand to purchase sex is understood to increase during these big events, and with it comes the market trend to meet that demand with supply.  Sex buyers, or johns, will be a particular focus for law enforcement during this big event.

For details, read “Sex predators expected for 2024 Super Bowl in Las Vegas,” written by Mark Robison, and published by the Reno Gazette Journal on February 6, 2023; and Nevada politicians sign letter to NFL aiming to combat human trafficking at the Super Bowl, written by Kevin Sheridan and published by KOLO8ABC on January 24, 2024.

After all, last year’s Arizona Super Bowl with an estimated 1,000,000 visitors to the area saw a joint federal, state, and local law enforcement effort which included undercover stings.  This resulted in 48 felony and 300 misdemeanor arrests involving prostitution crimes.  And 120 of these arrests were “sex buyers” or johns, with 14 of the felony arrests involving charges of attempts to have sex with minors.  Read, Sex trafficking sting operation in Arizona during Super Bowl leads to multiple arrests, written by Miguel Torres and published by AZ Central on February 26, 2023.

Undercover Operations:  John Stings or Reverse Stings

Trying to arrest people involved in commercial sex transactions is not easy from a law enforcement perspective.  After all, the sex buyer and the sex seller are entering into an arrangement that may include other parties (e.g., pimps).  It’s a consensual agreement or bargain.  Online advertising and social media help to make these transactions fast and private.

Accordingly, to make an arrest, undercover operations to catch someone committing the crime of trying to buy sex (“solicit prostitution”) are a common practice. It’s not a new tactic.  John stings or “reverse stings” have been used by law enforcement in Texas and other states for a very long time.

What is a John Sting?

From the perspective of law enforcement as well as advocates against human trafficking, prostitution by definition involves sexual exploitation.  Those seeking sexual services (the sex buyers or johns) are viewed as the key factor in the success of these illegal operations.  From the National Center for Sexual Exploitation discussion of the sex buying issue:

“As the driving force fueling the markets for paid sex, these “buyers” represent the consumer-level demand. Without them making the decision to buy sex acts, sexual exploitation would end. No buyers, no business.”

“Demand Reduction Interventions”

Accordingly, for many years there have been lots of law enforcement operations targeting the “demand” side of the paid-sex marketplace.  These are known as “John Stings” or “Reverse Stings,” and technically referred to by the Department of Justice as “demand reduction interventions.”  See, Shively, Michael, et al. “National Assessment of Demand Reduction Efforts, Part II: New Developments in the Primary Prevention of Sex Trafficking, Final Report.” (2023) (“Report”), page 19.

From the 2023 Report comes the following explanation of a Reverse Sting or John Sting:

The second most common strategy employed to decrease the demand for prostitution is “Reverse Stings.” When we began this project, reverse stings were the most common tactic in use. However, during our update we identified a substantial number of additional uses of “Identity Disclosure,” and it rose to become the most employed strategy. We have recorded 2,403 communities using identity disclosure versus 2,196 reverse sting operations in cities and counties across the United States.

Reverse sting operations typically involve the participation of one or more female police officers who act as decoys, assuming the role of individuals being prostituted to attract men seeking to buy sex. There are three categories of reverse stings: those conducted to combat street-level prostitution, those conducted online (i.e., web-based) to combat prostitution facilitated by online platforms, and those that target brothel-based prostitution.

Report, page 40 (footnotes omitted).

Monthly Sting Operations in Midland-Odessa

Just this week, in fact, there was news of over three dozen arrests being made in Midland-Odessa in a “joint sting operation” where 38 sex buyers were charged for the crime of Solicitation of Prostitution. In news reports, Midland County Sheriff David Criner noted that this was a joint effort between several local police departments as well as state agencies (including the DPS).  Of note, the Sheriff explains that these joint sting operations are undertaken on a monthly basis focusing on either the sex buyers or on the human traffickers.  Read, “38 arrested for soliciting prostitution in Joint Sting Operation,” written by Tyler Poglitsch and published by CBS7 on January 22, 2024; also read, “38 people arrested in joint prostitution sting around Midland-Odessa:The four-day “John sting” resulted in the 38 people to be arrested for solicitation of prostitution,” published by NewsWest on January 19, 2024.

Consequently, criminal defense lawyers in Texas understand that there are routine undercover operations focusing upon the investigation and arrest of people (usually men) who are buying sex, or caught in the attempt to buy sex.  These can be small efforts by local police or multifaceted joint operations of local, state, and federal agencies.

Sudden and Shocking Arrests With Immediate, Irreparable Consequences

Buying sex in Texas can get someone arrested without warning, and surprising someone who has never before had any trouble with the law.  Professionals and family men, respected members of their community, can find themselves facing life-altering consequences intertwined between criminal proceedings and social stigmatization from the arrest itself.

Many may recall the shocking results of a sting last year here in North Texas where a hospital administrator; youth pastor; and football coach were among those named in police records and news reports in a local online john sting.  Read, “Frisco Police Identify 23 of 46 Arrested in North Texas Prostitution Sting,” written by Sarah Bahari, The Dallas Morning News and Meredith Yeomans and published on January 24, 2023 by NBCDFW.

Felony Charges for Those Arrested on Buying Sex Charges in Texas

Things will be different for anyone arrested in a John Sting during the Nevada Super Bowl festivities and those busted for solicitation of prostitution here in Texas.  Solicitation of Prostitution is a felony here.

Since September 2021, anyone arrested for violation of  Texas Penal Code §43.021 is facing charges of a either state jail felony or felonies of either the 2nd or 3rd degree, as compared to misdemeanor charges in other states.  This means some serious jail time if convicted.  For details, see Felony Charges under Texas and Federal Law: Criminal Defense Overview.

And just the offer to pay for sex is enough.  Under Texas law, the crime occurs if the “…person knowingly offers or agrees to pay a fee to another person for the purpose of engaging in sexual conduct with that person or another.”  Texas Penal Code §43.021(a).

For details, read,  Buying Sex in Texas: Texas is First State in USA to Make Solicitation of Prostitution a Felony Offense.

Compounded Felony Charges:  Trafficking or Sex With Minors Crimes

In Texas, sex buyers may well face not only felony charges based upon solicitation alone, but other severe felony charges filed against them for things like trafficking or sex with minors.  Prosecutors seek adding trafficking charges to solicitation cases as a tactic to combat human trafficking in the Lone Star State. For details, read our earlier discussion in Solicitation of Prostitution or Sex Trafficking? Overzealous Prosecutions of Johns in Texas.

Another added severity in the arrest of johns in Texas:  lots of these undercover operations are fervent in trying to arrest sex buyers who are allegedly making arrangements involving those under the age of adulthood.  These cases will have Solicitation charges filed alongside felonies for violation of child sex crime laws, such as Texas Penal Code §20A.02, which includes among its defined forms of child sex trafficking the actions of a sex buyer.  For more, read Child Sex Trafficking Arrest in Texas: Criminal Defense Overview.

Recent North Texas John Sting Arrests: Heightened Felony Charges

As an example, just in the past few weeks here in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, there is news coverage of undercover operations where people were arrested on Solicitation of Prostitution charges.  These were heralded as “human trafficking stings” where alleged sex buyers were arrested not only on felony solicitation but are also facing trafficking charges.  Even more serious were those who are facing charges involving minors in another recent sting.

Read, “53 arrested in North Texas human trafficking sting,” published by KDFW on January 22, 2024; and “10 arrested for allegedly seeking sex with minors in North Texas sting,” published by WFAA on January 11, 2024.

Criminal Defenses for Solicitation of Prostitution Charges after Sting Operation

What about someone who is caught up in one of these commonplace undercover sting operations, is there any defense they can offer as victims of covert police activity?

1. Entrapment

There is a legal defense known as “entrapment” which protects individuals from illegal activity by police officers or law enforcement agents.  It involves facts that reveal that the accused has been persuaded to commit an illegal act by the officer which he would not otherwise have done; then the police officer is in the wrong and the accused is a victim of entrapment.

As the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals explains:

It is the general rule that where the criminal intent originates in the mind of the accused the fact that the officers furnish the opportunity for or to aid the accused in the commission of a crime constitutes no defense to such a prosecution. Stevens v. State, 133 Tex.Cr.R. 333, 113 S.W.2d 906Sorrells v. U.S., supraState v. Marquardt, supra; 22 C.J.S., Criminal Law, § 45, p. 99. However, if the criminal design originates in the mind of the officer and he induces a person to commit a crime which he would not otherwise have committed except for such inducement, this is entrapment, and in law may constitute a defense to such crime. Sorrells v. U. S., supraState v. Marquardt, supraButts v. U.S., 8 Cir., 273 F. 35, 18 A.L.R. 143O’Brien v. U. S., 7 Cir., 51 F.2d 674Morei v. U. S., 6 Cir., 127 F.2d 827; 9 Texas Law Review 276; 41 Yale Law Journal 1249; 15 Am. Juris. 25; 22 C.J.S., Criminal Law, § 45, p. 99.

Cooper v. State, 288 S.W.2d 762, 763, 162 Tex. Crim. 624, 162 Tex. Crim. R. 624 (Crim. App. 1956).

Each case is unique and must be investigated on its own merits.  If a John Sting results in an arrest, then the entrapment defense will be considered.  However, to be successful there must be admissible evidence that the accused would not have paid for sex without the sting’s coaxing.  It is a difficult defense to prove in many cases, particularly if the person was arrested with funds or property that are argued to be payment for services (or with protection against sexually transmitted diseases) in their possession at the time of their arrest.

2. Proving Up Elements of the Statute

A key defense is grading the papers of the prosecution bringing the case after the sting.  The defense must evaluate all the evidence in the prosecution’s file to make sure that it meets with the legal elements of the felony charges.  The essential question is: do the facts support the charges?

  • Are these facts admissible and authenticated evidence?
  • Was there an agreement to buy sex or was this flirting with the undercover agent (in person or online)?
  • Did the person “knowingly offer” to pay a fee? This is a key condition of Texas Penal Code §43.021 and without sufficient evidence of this intent, there is a clear defense to the charges.  For instance, was there a blood alcohol content test made of the accused at the time of arrest? Is it possible that they were so intoxicated they were unable to act in a “knowing” manner?

3. Due Process

Other due process considerations must also be evaluated.  During the sting, for instance, were there any constitutional violations of search and seizure laws?  Did the accused get their Miranda rights?

For more, read: What is a Motion to Suppress? as well as Do Police Need Search Warrants to Access Digital Information? The Importance of Carpenter v. United States and Challenging the Search Warrant in Texas: Illegal Search and Seizure.

Defense for Those Accused of Buying Sex in Texas: John Stings and Solicitation Charges

An arrest for buying sex in Texas comes with a serious punishment since these are now felony crimes under Texas law.  Even the lowest punishment, as a state jail felony, comes with a sentence ranging between six months and two years in a Texas State Jail facility.  Enhancements mean a possible sentence for a third-degree felony which comes with a sentence of 2-to-10-years imprisonment in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility and a fine not to exceed $10,000.00.  Texas Penal Code §§12.32-35.

Things can be even more serious if the accused is facing charges involving human trafficking or when a minor is involved.  For instance, online solicitation of a minor comes with a statutory requirement that the accused register as a sex offender under Chapter 62 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

And it is a serious concern from a criminal defense perspective that prosecutors are using trafficking laws to arrest and charge johns or sex buyers with the more serious criminal charges involving sex trafficking with much more serious sentencing results.  For more on trafficking charges, read: Human Trafficking in Texas: Criminal Defense Perspective Part 1 of 2; and Human Trafficking in Texas: Criminal Defense Perspective Part 2 of 2.

Today’s undercover operations by law enforcement are sophisticated and well-orchestrated.  John stings or reverse stings (“demand reduction interventions”) are becoming more and more enthusiastic operations as police target the demand component of the illegal prostitution marketplace.

It is expected that more and more Texas arrests will be made of people accused of soliciting prostitution or seeking to buy sex either in person or over the internet.  Anyone arrested for solicitation of prostitution here in Texas needs a zealous and aggressive criminal defense.  This is true not only because of the serious nature of these charges with their possibility of years behind bars, but because of the immediate and irrefutable harm to personal and professional lives immediately upon arrest.

For more, read:


For more information, check out our web resources, read Michael Lowe’s Case Results, and read his in-depth article, “Top 10 Mistakes In Sexual Assault And Indecency With A Child Cases.”

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