Cass County has approximately 143,000 residents and is located in eastern North Dakota. The county is over 80% urban, and most of the population resides in the city of Fargo. The Fargo Police Department and Cass County Sheriff’s Office report that Fargo has a substantial prostitution problem, particularly in local hotels and motels. In more recent years there have been cases of human trafficking and arrests of pimps in the city. Most of the sales of sex are arranged via the internet: it was estimated that about 72,000 sex ads were posted on backpage.com in North Dakota in 2017. Another problem associated with prostitution locally is child endangerment: in one 2014 case, a young woman was charged with prostitution and drug use in her home while caring for her newborn son.
Police have targeted demand, conducting several web-based reverse stings since 2007 and publicizing the identities of arrestees. Prostitution and soliciting sex are Class B misdemeanors in North Dakota, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The cases often result in a guilty plea and deferred imposition of the sentence: if the offender does not violate probation, the charge is removed from his public record (although it remains as a sealed record, which is inaccessible to the public but can be accessed by prosecutors and judges when needed). A National Assessment survey form completed by police from neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, indicated that there are public education efforts focusing demand in Cass County.
An example of a web-based reverse sting in Fargo occurred in September 2017. 60 people responded to an online ad for sex with underage girls, and resulted in two arrests. It was a lower number than expected due to heavy competition from other online sex ads that week, which coincided with the annual Big Iron Farm Show at the Red River Valley Fairgrounds in West Fargo. There were 40 to 50 other ads offering sex on Fargo’s backpage.com or quadruple the number seen during the a sting the prior March. In March 2017, undercover officers chatted with more than 85 ad respondents on one day, which resulted in 10 arrests. The men arrested in September 2017 were charged in Cass County District Court with patronizing a minor for commercial sexual activity. According to a criminal complaint, one man responded to an online ad placed by police and agreed to pay $100 to have sexual intercourse at a local hotel with a person he thought was a 14-year-old girl. The other man had agreed to pay $70 to engage in oral sex with a person he thought was a 16-year-old girl.
A “john school” program for arrested sex buyers was approved by the State Legislature in 2015, and was operational in February 2017. The program is a one-day course provided by the Director of the criminal justice program at the University of Mary. The john school can be used as a sentencing option for people convicted of soliciting prostitution, and features a panel of survivors, discussion of negative effects on the community, and legal and health risks buyers may face as offenders. Courses can be offered in Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Watford City. During the first six months following its establishment, nobody had has been sentenced to the john school, in part due to lack of awareness and due to under-investment in operations that produce arrestees that would populate the program. In the first half of 2018, 18 men arrested during prostitution stings in Bismarck would have been candidates for the program, but the Assistant City Attorney, who was prosecuting the cases, did not know it existed even though it had been approved by the Legislature in 2015 and ready-to-go in February 2017. Presentations had been given at conferences for district judges and state’s attorneys, but not to the city-level staff who often handle Class B misdemeanors like the solicitation of prostitution.
- Cass County Sheriff’s Office
- Fargo Police Department
- Local hotels that provide space for web-based reverse stings
- University of Mary (John School)
- North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force
- North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations
- Department of Homeland Security
National Assessment survey
Web-Based Reverse Sting:
- http://www.westfargopioneer.com/news/4232347-9-jailed-including-8-cass-county-part-underage-sex-sting (2017)
- https://www.inforum.com/news/4328217-local-two-day-sex-ad-sting-results-60-responses-two-arrests (2017)
- https://www.am1100theflag.com/news/2601-fargo-man-arrested-human-trafficking-sting (2018)
- https://kfgo.com/news/articles/2018/oct/17/man-arrested-in-underage-sex-sting/ (2018)
Background on local prostitution, sex trafficking, and related violence and child endangerment:
- https://www.heitkamp.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/heidi-in-the-news?ID=136905E0-A8AE-4A10-A207-81BAC7713981 (2017)