7th Circuit affirms sentence in teen sex trafficking case

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A man who exploited a teen in the foster care system will keep his decades-long sentence for crimes related to sex trafficking, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

The appellate court in USA v. Elijah Vines, 19-2316 affirmed 40- and five-year sentences to run concurrently for Elijah Vines for his conviction of five counts related to sex trafficking of a minor.

Vines, of Indianapolis, was found guilty of two counts of sex trafficking of a child, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor, transportation of a minor, and interstate travel in aid of racketeering.

In September 2016, the victim, then-15-year-old “GMC,” ran away from her foster home and was later arrested for shoplifting in Ohio.

Trying to avoid going back into foster care, GMC provided police with a fake name and age. When a friend picked her up from jail, Vines was a passenger in the vehicle. At the time, Vines was involved in criminal activity that included selling cellphones as part of a scam and prostituting females.

Vines, who knew GMC was a minor, then transported her to his residence and then to a hotel, and subsequently began prostituting her.

Vines also posted ads of GMC online and arranged for GMC to meet with customers to engage in sex acts.

When GMC was later taken into custody by law enforcement as a runaway in October of 2016, and evaluated at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, she told the staff she had been forced to engage in sex in exchange for drugs and money. According to doctors who examined GMC, her injuries were “too numerous to count.”

The 7th Circuit refused to find merit to any of Vines’ arguments on appeal, including his claim that the Southern District of Indiana erred in allowing the testimony of an expert witness that related to the credibility of GMC; denying his motion to suppress GMC’s identification of Vines through a Facebook photo; and denying the motions to suppress evidence obtained from a search of his iPhone and from a search of his Facebook and iCloud accounts.

First, the 7th Circuit found Vines failed to demonstrate that the government’s expert witness testimony exceeded the scope of permissible testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 702, noting that the witness “merely provided insight as to sex trafficking generally and the effect on victims, which would aid a jury in understanding and evaluating the evidence presented to it.”

“In fact, (FBI Supervisory Special Agent Hardie) testified that he did not speak with GMC at any point in time and did not read any of her statements, and therefore his testimony could not have been interpreted as opining as to her credibility,” 7th Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner wrote.

Both of Vines’ arguments regarding his motions to suppress were for naught, the 7th Circuit concluded, noting that his challenge of the district court’s refusal to suppress GMC’s identification of him from a photo on his Facebook page failed at the first step because he could not “demonstrate that the identification procedures used were ‘tainted by police arrangement.’”

“Vines has presented no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the detectives orchestrated the display of the Facebook page in order to facilitate the identification of a particular person known to the detectives at the time,” Rovner wrote.

The 7th Circuit also found no meritorious challenge to the iPhone’s seizure, and Vines’ argument that consent for his girlfriend to hand over the phone to police was coerced because the officers informed her that they would return after obtaining a warrant if she did not consent.

“…(B)ut nothing in that colloquy renders the acquiescence involuntary,” Rovner wrote. “In fact, informing her that they would need to return with a warrant in order to seize the phone if she did not consent made clear that she had the right to refuse to turn it over.”

The 7th Circuit concluded that even assuming the alleged misrepresentations and omissions could have undermined GMC’s credibility, the unchallenged holding of the district court that probable cause was established by other evidence foreclosed Vines’ arguments that a Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978) hearing was required and that the motion to suppress should have been granted.

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