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Poole v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

October 25, 2019

RYAN POOLE, Appellant,


          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Marion County, Anthony M. Tatti, Judge.

          James S. Purdy, Public Defender, and Nancy Ryan, Assistant Public Defender, Daytona Beach, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Robin A. Compton and Kristen L. Davenport, Assistant Attorney Generals, Daytona Beach, for Appellee.

          GROSSHANS, J.

         Ryan Poole ("Appellant") appeals his judgment and sentence after a jury found him guilty of multiple offenses, including human trafficking for commercial sexual activity and branding. We affirm in all respects, but write specifically to address the admission of expert testimony in this case.

         Appellant began a relationship with a woman ("H.E.") that he met online. Months later, a physical altercation occurred which led H.E. to report Appellant to law enforcement. Police documented H.E.'s injuries, and she underwent a sexual assault examination. H.E. later turned over several personal items to law enforcement and provided her username and password for a website called "Backpage." After police secured additional evidence, the State charged Appellant with human trafficking for commercial sexual activity, branding, and other crimes.

         Prior to trial, the State sought an order authorizing Special Agent Jose Ramirez to present expert testimony on the sex worker subculture and human trafficking, arguing that such testimony would assist the jury in understanding the language, tactics, and coercion involved in relationships between pimps and their sex workers. Appellant opposed the motion, arguing that expert testimony on this subject would not be helpful to the jury as the subject required no specialized understanding. Additionally, according to Appellant, the proposed expert testimony would constitute improper testimony on general criminal behavior.

         Notwithstanding Appellant's objections, the trial court found that Special Agent Ramirez was qualified as an expert and his testimony was admissible. In so ruling, the court noted specifically that the subjects of human trafficking and sex workers were not ones that average jurors would comprehend and that the expert opinion would aid in their understanding of these topics.

         At trial, the State's first witness was Special Agent Ramirez who testified as to his training and background, including his general experience in investigating the commercial sex industry and human trafficking. He went on to define terms used in trafficking such as burner phones, kings (or daddy kings), boyfriends/girlfriends, donations or roses, Romeo pimps, and gorilla pimps. Additionally, he explained the traits of a human trafficking victim, i.e., avoiding eye contact, suffering from physical injuries, exhibiting malnutrition, dressing provocatively, and displaying certain tattoos.

         According to Special Agent Ramirez's testimony, victims of trafficking are generally slow to open up about their status as victims, and they often distrust law enforcement and deny being physically abused. Pimps or traffickers, on the other hand, are typically controlling individuals, masters in manipulation, and business savvy. Special Agent Ramirez also explained some aspects of the recruitment process employed by traffickers. Pimps recruit new workers primarily on the internet, but also explore malls and strip clubs for prospects. Recruiting typically involves a grooming process, which may involve simply taking an interest in the prospect's life and "showering" the prospect with affection. After the grooming process, pimps and traffickers set the rules, which the victim must obey. Special Agent Ramirez further explained that prostitution has changed over the last ten years, transitioning "from street based prostitution to web based prostitution." Consistent with this change, pimps employ modern technology such as websites, including Backpage, and untraceable "burner" phones to advance their trade.

         On cross-examination, Special Agent Ramirez testified that he did not know any of the underlying facts of this case, and he opined that reporting abuse to law enforcement would be uncommon for a trafficking victim.

         Following Special Agent Ramirez's testimony, the State called additional witnesses. H.E. testified that shortly after her relationship with Appellant began, Appellant required her to address him as "daddy," threatened to harm her and her family if she did not obey him, and required her to "make a lot of money . . . and treat him like royalty." She further testified that Appellant groomed her to become a sex worker which included his introducing her to cocaine and teaching her how to perform oral sex. At Appellant's direction, she began working as a stripper and prostitute, both of which were facilitated through the use of Backpage. H.E. also testified that Appellant established "guidelines, rules and laws" for her to follow, which she documented in a notebook. In addition to establishing rules, Appellant required H.E. to prove her loyalty to him and get "marked" as "daddy's property." In compliance with this requirement, H.E. had Appellant's initials tattooed just above her genitals. H.E. also testified that she made regular trips in state and out of state without Appellant and maintained her regular job as a bartender throughout the relationship.

         Other witnesses testified that, while in the relationship with Appellant, H.E. lost a significant amount of weight, appeared anxious and chronically ill, and did not seem to have money to support her son-despite her sources of income. They also testified that she seemed isolated and dressed ...

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