(CN) – Her feet hurt; her trafficker required her to wear high heels every day. But she had no money to buy personal grooming items like nail clippers and a pumice stone, so she stole them.
The trafficking survivor had a record. Prostitution, theft and drug convictions continued to follow her even after she turned her life around and got her GED, and potential employers rescinded job offers once background checks were performed.
But a new California law which vacates and erases nonviolent offenses committed by victims of human trafficking offered her and others a fresh start.
In 2016, California joined 36 other states with vacatur or expungement laws for trafficking survivors, though it took some coordination among victims’ advocates, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement and the courts before petitions could be successfully filed in California courts.
California’s law among the best
San Diego County has so far seen three vacatur petitions granted, among the first in the state whose law is touted as a “model” for others looking to enact or amend vacatur laws for human trafficking survivors. California is one of a few states which not only vacates trafficking survivors’ prostitution charges, but also clears drug, theft and other nonviolent convictions if the person is found to have been victim of human trafficking when the crime occurred.
Jamie Quient, attorney and founder of San Diego nonprofit Free to Thrive which offers free legal services to human trafficking survivors, said it makes sense to vacate nonviolent crimes that are committed as a direct result of the trafficked person’s victimization.
Quient said because trafficking survivors “very rarely” see any of the money they make, they often steal basic necessities just to get by. A client stole foot products, for instance, because her feet hurt from wearing high heels. In another one of her cases, Quient said a client had a list of items her pimp wanted her to steal for him. Most trafficking victims also become addicted to drugs, Quient said, because their traffickers use it as a means of coercion and control. Survivors might later abuse drugs as a means to cope with their circumstances, Quient said.
“This law is the criminal justice system’s way of saying you’re not a criminal and should not have been treated as one,” Quient said.
San Diego Deputy District Attorney Mary-Ellen Barrett worked on the case for Quient’s client. She compared California’s new vacatur law to a “big eraser” which goes “back to erase criminal liability.”
She said she was initially skeptical of allowing petty theft convictions to be erased, thinking it “might be a problem.” She later saw why it’s necessary after the petitions started rolling in.
“I got a petition where someone wasn’t allowed to purchase personal items on her own. They steal things like alcohol to escape or personal items because they need body wash and toothpaste to keep going,” Barrett said.
“There’s a difference between petty theft and putting a gun to someone’s head.”
Laws across the nation
Like many states with vacatur laws for human trafficking survivors, Michigan only allows survivors to vacate prostitution charges.