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In 'Flush the Johns' bench trials, judges should have explained acquittals, says DA Kathleen Rice

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice spoke on the

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice spoke on the topic of domestic violence and human trafficking at a conference at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Nassau judges who acquitted four men at separate trials on charges of patronizing a prostitute should have explained their verdicts, and allowed prosecutors to call prostitution "human trafficking," Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said.

"When there are bench trials, I think it's incumbent upon those judges . . . to give a reason for why you are acquitting the defendant," Rice said Tuesday night at a forum at her alma mater, Touro Law Center in Central Islip, on domestic violence and human trafficking.

It was the first time that Rice has publicly taken the judges to task for their not guilty verdicts in several cases involving the 104 men arrested in the Flush the Johns anti-prostitution sting last year.

She also criticized the judges, without naming them, for refusing to allow prosecutors to use the term "human trafficking" during court proceedings, saying it "made no sense to me. . . . [Judges] literally forbade prosecutors from using the words 'human trafficking' in the courtroom."

A spokesman for the Nassau County Court system said in a statement Wednesday that, "There is no legal requirement for a judge who presides over a bench trial to make any comments at the conclusion of the trial other than to state their verdict of guilty or not guilty. The same as a jury."

"The judges who presided over the bench trials are experienced and well respected judges," spokesman Daniel Bagnuola said in the statement.

Several legal experts contacted by Newsday Wednesday agreed that judges are not required to comment on their verdicts, and one expert said it might be risky if judges started explaining their verdicts.

"The court has no obligation to explain to a district attorney how a district attorney failed to prove her case beyond a reasonable doubt. The law is looking for a bright line: guilty or not guilty," Fordham Law School Professor Martha Rayner said.

"The law isn't interested in the judge's opinion on whether the defendant might be guilty, which could arise if the court started explaining its reasoning," Rayner said.

But Albany Law School Professor Michael Hutter said, while there is no requirement to explain a decision, he would like to see judges do so. "Shouldn't there be more transparency in their proceeding?" he asked.

Nassau police arrested the men during April and May of 2013. The men were accused of going to a website with explicit sexual content and arranging to meet a supposed prostitute at a local hotel, where they were arrested by undercover officers.

Five cases went to trial, resulting in four acquittals. More than 80 of the men pleaded guilty to some charge and several cases are pending.

Rice has repeatedly linked the anti-prostitution sting to human trafficking, but at least two Nassau County Court judges, Sharon Gianelli and Rhonda Fischer, supported defense attorney objections when prosecutors used the phrase in court.

Rice also argued Tuesday night that the Flush the Johns sting had deterred men from seeking out prostitutes in Nassau County. However, she provided no documentation to support that claim.

"The deterrent effect of these arrests is without question," she said. "If there is anyone who doesn't think there were not fewer people trolling . . . [web sex sites] . . . the day after this sting, you're crazy. That's the deterrent effect. We know that for a fact."

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