An appeals court in Phoenix, Arizona, vacated activist Monica Jones’ prostitution conviction this morning, citing an unfair trial.
In March 2013, Jones was arrested for prostitution shortly after protesting a controversial “rescue” program known as Project ROSE, which used sweeping police stings to round up suspected sex workers and force them to accept social services and enter a diversion program or face criminal charges. Repeat offenders who did not qualify for the program faced charges and potentially jail time.
“As you may know, I was arrested under an anti-prostitution sting, by the name of Project ROSE,” Jones said in a statement in November, when she learned that Project ROSE was not planning any more stings. “This program used police and prosecutors to round up sex workers, and people profiled as sex workers, forcing them into diversion programs using coercion.”
Jones, who is a black transgender woman and an activist, was charged with violating a vague local statute that considers waving at cars or engaging a passerby in conversation as evidence of “manifesting” an “intent” to sell sexual services. Jones and other activists argue that this “manifesting prostitution” statute allows police to unfairly profile transgender women, poor people and woman of color, and Jones may have been specifically targeted because she is an outspoken activist.
“When an undercover officer saw Monica Jones . . . walking down the street just a few blocks from her house, in an area that the officer described as being ‘known for prostitution,’ that was enough to convince him that she intended to engage in prostitution,” wrote Chase Strangio, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “It was on that basis that he approached and stopped her.”
As Truthout has reported, police in cities across the country routinely profile transgender women and other gender nonconforming people – especially people of color – as sex workers for simply walking down the street, or “walking while woman.”
So, Jones decided to fight her charges in court.
“It’s not just me fighting to prove that I’m innocent; it’s me fighting against this outrageous law,” Jones told Truthout in 2014. “Who has more to lose? The state has more to lose than I do . . . because this case sets a precedent.”
The only witness testimony in the case was from Jones and her arresting officer, who was working undercover when he stopped Jones in his car a few blocks from her house as she was walking to meet some friends at a bar and restaurant.
Both witnesses agreed that Jones accepted a ride from the undercover officer, but they disagreed on who initiated the ride and alleged sexual advances, according to reports.
It was Jones’ word against the cop’s, and the trial court sided with the cop, citing Jones’ credibility as a witness.
Jones had been arrested on prostitution charges a few years earlier and brought to Project ROSE. She called the program “humiliating,” and subsequently joined sex worker and human rights advocates in publicly opposing Project ROSE and other “rescue” programs like it.
Arizona’s harsh prostitution laws require a mandatory 30-day jail sentence for repeat offenders. In the ruling to convict Jones, the trial judge wrote that Jones was not a credible witness because “a motive to avoid a mandatory 30-day sentence would be something that I can’t ignore.”
Here’s an excerpt from the cross-examination of Jones during the original trial:
Q. [by the prosecutor] You’ve not been bashful or shy about your, at least previous sex work experience, correct?
A. I’m not – I’m not ashamed. I’m not shy. I talk about it very openly. And that’s the reason I was out there protesting.
Q. Okay. And so your protest of Project ROSE is related to your work as a sex worker, correct?
A. No. It’s related to my activism for human rights and civil rights. That’s the reason why.
Q. And would you agree with me that you’ve previously been arrested for prostitution activities, correct?
A. Yes. My past is my past.
Q. And would you agree with me that you’ve previously been convicted for prostitution activities, correct?
A. Yes. That’s open records.
Nobody wants to spend 30 days in jail, especially Jones, who, if she had been incarcerated, would have missed her classes at Arizona State University where she studies social work. But just because a witness is facing jail time doesn’t mean they are guilty and prepared to lie about it. This is exactly what the appeals court found in its ruling this morning, which vacated the conviction and declared a mistrial. The appeals court ordered a new trial, but it’s unclear if prosecutors will reopen the case.
“My conviction being vacated is important, but it is a small win in our larger fight for justice,” Jones told reporters this morning. “There are so many trans women and cisgender women who might be charged under this law in Phoenix and similar laws across the country. There is so much more work that needs to be done so that no one will have to face what I have no matter who they are or what past convictions they have.”
The courts did not rule on a constitutional challenge to Phoenix’s “manifesting prostitution” statute filed by the ACLU, but the case – and the activism of Jones and her allies – put Project ROSE and Arizona’s harsh treatment of sex workers under international scrutiny.
In January 2014, sex worker and human rights activists reported the statute and Project ROSE to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In November of that year, Jones announced that she had been informed that Project ROSE would no longer be conducting prostitution sweeps with the police.
The founder of Project ROSE is Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, a social work professor at Arizona State University School of Social Work, where Jones also studies.