County attorney drops appeal in prostitution caseCarlton County Attorney Thom Pertler has decided to withdraw an appeal in the prostitution solicitation case of Ronald D. Scinocca Jr., 56, of Duluth.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler has decided to withdraw an appeal in the prostitution solicitation case of Ronald D. Scinocca Jr., 56, of Duluth. The appeal had come in response to an omnibus order issued by Judge Dale Wolf on Dec. 21, 2011, granting a motion to have Scinocca’s case dismissed based on the argument that a hotel room does not qualify as a “public place.”
Scinocca was one of nine men accused of hiring, offering or agreeing to hire someone to engage in prostitution in a public place, a gross misdemeanor, following a year-long, multi-agency investigation and sting operation in Cloquet. Authorities received information that individuals had been seeking prostitution for hire via the Internet. All of the men were arrested at a Cloquet hotel on June 29, 2011, after police observed them offering money to women posing as prostitutes in return for sexual services.
The issue of whether a hotel room should be considered a public or private place became the focal point of arguments last August during a contested omnibus hearing. Scinocca’s attorney, Andrew Pierce, submitted a brief contending that although a hotel or motel may be considered a public place, the individual rooms should be considered private. According to state statute, solicitation of prostitution in a public place is punishable as a gross misdemeanor, while prostitution in a private place is prosecuted as a misdemeanor.
The attorneys and Judge Dale Wolf debated the point that while a hotel might have public spaces such as the lobby, restaurant and bar/lounge, the rooms themselves may or may not be considered private, according to interpretation.
In Wolf’s subsequent memorandum accompanying his decision in the case, he made several points to substantiate his conclusion. He said Scinocca and his attorney asserted that the word “hotel,” as it is included in the definition of a public place, is ambiguous because it could simply mean the areas of the building that are open to the public or it could mean the entire building, including individual rooms occupied by lodgers.
“When the language of a criminal law is ambiguous,” wrote Wolf, “the court must construe it narrowly in favor of the defendant.”
Wolf concluded there was insufficient evidence to show the crime occurred in a public place as required in the gross misdemeanor provision of the statute, and he ruled that Scinocca’s charge be dismissed.
Pertler disagreed with Wolf’s conclusions and filed a brief appealing the decision on behalf of the county attorney’s office. Pertler said the State Court of Appeals subsequently encouraged him to drop the appeal, however, stating a decision in the case could lend itself to precedent-setting “bad law” – meaning that a particularly unpleasant case such as this one is a poor basis for a general law which would cover a wider range of less extreme situations. In other words, a general law is better drafted for average circumstances which will likely be more common.
All of the other defendants in the prostitution arrests have reached plea agreements in their cases and have been sentenced accordingly.