What is the Mann Act and is It Still Used by Law Enforcement?

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on April 01, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Hoping to deal a knockout blow to an historical injustice, the AP reports that John McCain and others are stepping forward seeking a rare posthumous presidential pardon for the country's first black heavyweight boxing champ, Jack Johnson, who was convicted of violating the Mann Act in 1913. But just what is the Mann Act, and why is it still making headlines?

One NPR article broke down the history of the Mann Act (originally entitled the "White Slave Traffic" Act), noting the Act was "designed to combat forced prostitution." The text of the Mann Act as it was written back in 1910 was very broad, making it a crime for:

"any person who shall knowingly transport or cause to be transported...any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose..."

Such broad language in the Act allowed a number of high profile prosecutions that critics claim have been politically or racially motivated. NPR noted that "[i]n the past century, thousands of people have been prosecuted under the Mann Act, including celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Chuck Berry and Jack Johnson." In the case of Jack Johnson, the "prostitute" which he was transporting from Pittsburgh to Chicago was actually his white girlfriend, but he still ended up getting convicted and sentenced to the maximum 1 year and a day.

Some might be surprised to know that the Mann Act is still in the books, but the Act's text, goals, and enforcement have changed over time. The most broadly worded portion of the Act penalizes:

"Whoever knowingly transports any individual in interstate or foreign commerce...with intent that such individual engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.."

Also, cases prosecuted under the Mann Act these days often involve the potential sexual exploitation of minors. This is particularly viable in the context of the Internet, where sexual predators and pedophiles sometimes find underage victims residing in other states (making the Mann Act a useful tool). Nevertheless, the prostitution side of the Act can sometimes arise, with one noteable example being the Eliot Spitzer case last year.

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