SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — When is someone a pimp?

The California Supreme Court grappled with that question Tuesday in the case of a man who was convicted of pandering in Los Angeles after he tried to recruit an undercover police officer to work as a prostitute for him.

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His lawyer urged the high court during oral arguments to toss out the conviction, arguing that only pimps who recruit innocent victims — rather than working prostitutes or someone posing as a prostitute — can be guilty of pandering.

The case of Jomo Zambia boils down to defining the phrase in California law that makes it a crime for anyone who “induces, persuades or encourages another person to become a prostitute.”

Zambia was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to four years in prison. He’s been paroled but wants his conviction erased.

His lawyer Vanessa Place argued that Zambia should have been charged with a lesser crime, such as attempting to pander or solicitation of a prostitute.

She said people can’t be convicted of pandering when they attempt to persuade a working prostitute to change management.

“You can’t become what you already are,” Place argued.

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California Deputy Attorney General Rama Maline countered that the law was meant to imprison any would-be pimp regardless of the target’s status as a prostitute or innocent victim.

The Supreme Court appeared divided on the issue. Justices Marvin Baxter, Ming Chin and Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian seemed ready to side with the state.

Bamattre-Manoukian, an appellate court judge temporarily filling in because of the retirement of Carlos Moreno, said the law could be read as making Zambia’s action illegal because the person was “becoming a prostitute for him for the first time.”

Justice Joyce Kennard , however, said Zambia made a compelling argument.

“When one is already a prostitute, one can’t be encouraged to be a prostitute,” Kennard said. “That seems to be a common-sense interpretation.”

The court will rule within 90 days.

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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)