SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Jomo Zambia was driving his truck down Sepulveda Boulevard on a typically pleasant June night in the San Fernando Valley when he thought he spied a prostitute.
At the notorious intersection of Sepulveda and Valerio known for its prostitutes, Zambia made a U-turn, stopped his truck and beckoned the woman through the open passenger window to get inside.
"What for," the woman asked. Zambia said he was a pimp and he offered his services, which included providing housing and clothing, if she turned over all of her money to him. When she expressed skepticism about his credentials, he waved a business card in her face and insisted he was "legit" and promised he would "take care of her."
The prostitute turned out to be Los Angeles Police Officer Erika Cruz working undercover. Zambia was arrested that night in 2007, convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. He has since been paroled.
But his case lives on.
On March 8, the California Supreme Court — which hears every death sentence appeal and handles historic cases on topics such as the gay marriage debate — will begin to answer this legal question:
"Can a defendant be convicted of pandering for offering to act as a pimp for a woman who appears to be already working as a prostitute?"
In other words, the high court has decided to define what makes a pimp in California.
The attorneys involved in the case and court watchers insist the case is a legally important one that will reach beyond who goes to prison for pandering. Zambia's case is among the first heard by the newly comprised Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who was sworn in last month.
Zambia's case will offer insight into what side of the classic philosophical divide Cantil-Sakauye and the new court will take when it comes to interpreting the law. Is the new court one that sticks to the "plain meaning" of the printed words on the books, or will it try to divine the intent of each law's creator?
Zambia's lawyer Vanessa Place is demanding a strict, plain-meaning approach. That's because Zambia's case boils down to defining the phrase in California law that makes it a crime for anyone who "induces, persuades or encourages another person to become a prostitute."
Place argues that prison is reserved only for those who recruit innocent victims into the "game" and that would-be pimps can't be convicted of pandering when they attempt to persuade a working prostitute to "change management." Her argument turns on defining the word "become."
The California Attorney General's office insists the court look at the intent of the pandering law, arguing the California Legislature meant to lock up anyone who tried to encourage someone to work for them as a prostitute. Deputy Attorney General Rama Maline says there's no way lawmakers intended to let suspects like Zambia off the hook.
""This narrow view of pandering flies in the face of the common-sense construction of the statute," Maline said in his written arguments to the court. To rule otherwise "would severely undermine efforts to combat prostitution."
Until recently, the defense attorneys say, pandering charges were used mostly to send brothel operators and heads of extensive prostitution rings to prison.
For example, a jury in 1995 convicted so-called Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss of pandering for operating a high-end prostitution ring. Her conviction and three-year sentence were tossed out the next year when an appellate court found juror misconduct.
But now, defense attorneys throughout the state are complaining that prosecutors are overzealously charging suspects with pandering, which carries a minimum three-year prison sentence, instead of less serious crimes such as solicitation, which often results in probation. They argue that the law is misapplied to suspects like Zambia, who before his arrest lived with his parents and worked at nights in their janitorial company cleaning office buildings.
"You don't have to use a bazooka to go after a fly," Place said. "There are plenty of laws on the books to police prostitution."
Some courts are starting to agree. In January, the state Court of Appeal tossed out the pandering conviction of an Elk Grove man who offered a 17-year-old girl money in exchange for sex, reasoning the suspect was only soliciting sex and not trying to be a pimp.
Until 2009, every appellate court that considered the issue sided with the prosecutors' interpretation of the law: a pimp is pandering when he entices anyone to work as a prostitute. But then in 2009, a three-judge appellate panel based in Santa Ana "reluctantly" tossed out the conviction of a man convicted of trying to persuade a practicing prostitute to work for him.
"If the Legislature had wanted a more broadly applicable provision, it could have easily replaced the phrase 'become a prostitute' with the phrase 'engage in prostitution,'" Justice William Bedsworth wrote for the unanimous panel. "We cannot simply assume it meant the latter when it said the former."
A bill introduced in the Assembly last year to change the law to include working prostitutes died quietly in committee. Zambia's conviction and the last word on interpreting "become" in the pandering stature rests with the California Supreme Court.
Place said she has lost touch with Zambia since his parole from prison and he couldn't be found for comment.Tags: