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4th Circuit upholds conviction of juvenile who robbed Md. brothel

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, housed at the Lewis F. Powell Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. (U.S. General Services Administration)

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, housed at the Lewis F. Powell Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia. (U.S. General Services Administration)

Federal prosecutors did not violate the constitutional rights of a brothel robber by trying him as an adult, even though he was 17 years old when he committed the crime in Langley Park, a U.S. appeals court ruled Monday.

The federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, which seeks to protect youthful offenders from adult criminal court, does not apply to Alexsi Lopez because he was no longer under age 21 when he was indicted six years after the 2007 robbery, the 4th Circuit ruled in its 3-0 decision.

The court rejected Lopez’s argument, through counsel, that the JDA’s withdrawal of juvenile-court recourse for youthful offenders not indicted before age 21 is “irrational” – and thus unconstitutional. Acts committed as juveniles rationally belong in juvenile court regardless of the date of indictment, Lopez’s attorney argued in vain.

“The problem with Lopez’s argument is that its premise is false: The JDA is not concerned exclusively, or even primarily, with the moral culpability of offenders at the time of their crimes,” Judge Pamela Harris wrote for the 4th Circuit.

““What matters under the JDA is whether a defendant will benefit from a separate delinquency system that is specially geared toward the needs and the unique rehabilitative capacity of juveniles,” Harris added in the published opinion. “And the answer to that question will depend on the age of the defendant at the time he or she is brought into the criminal justice process. Thus, there is nothing irrational about Congress’s decision, codified in (the JDA), to reserve the protections of the juvenile justice system for offenders who enter it before they turn 21.”

The brothel was robbed on Feb. 28, 2007, but Lopez was not indicted until 2013, when a jailhouse informant told investigators that Lopez had boasted about the robbery shortly after the crime, according to prosecutors, who charged him with violating the Hobbs Act, a federal robbery statute.

U.S. District Judge Paul W. Grimm, who presides at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, rejected Lopez’s argument that he must be tried as a juvenile because he was 17 when he allegedly robbed the brothel. Grimm said the JDA applies not to the crime but to the indictment, by which time Lopez was 24.

A jury subsequently found Lopez guilty of robbery.

On appeal, the 4th Circuit upheld not only Lopez’s conviction but his 20-year prison sentence, which his attorney had argued violated the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because it was too great a penalty for so young an offender.

In rejecting that argument, the 4th Circuit said the Supreme Court had struck down as unconstitutional only the death penalty and life without parole for juvenile offenders — not shorter sentences.

Lopez’s attorney, Carmen D. Hernandez, also argued in vain that the Hobbs Act could not apply to the robbery of a brothel because the illicit business did not affect interstate commerce, as required under the federal law.

Alas, prostitution is “an inherently economic enterprise,” Harris wrote. “And this particular business … was significantly facilitated by interstate commerce, as women … regularly moved across state lines from their homes in order to work at the brothel. The government also put on evidence that the brothel routinely used condoms manufactured outside the state of Maryland as part of its business, and that Lopez … targeted the brothel because it was an illegal business taking in cash from its customers.”

Hernandez, a Highland solo practitioner, declined to comment Monday on the decision.

Judges Diana G. Motz and Robert B. King joined Harris’ opinion in United States of America v. Alexsi Lopez, No. 15-4573.

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