When Is Prostitution Human Trafficking?

In 2012, Californians voted to impose harsher prison sentences for human traffickers. But one of the first cases tried under the new law highlights the complications behind trying to fix the problem.

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In late August, at a Best Western Hotel in Moreno Valley, California, a hardscrabble town 65 miles east of Los Angeles, a young, barefoot woman quietly approached the desk clerk. Her name was Jay, she had a tattoo of the word “Special” across her chest, and she seemed panicked. “I’ve been kidnapped,” she whispered. She said that she’d been walking to a store in Compton the previous afternoon when she was snatched off the street by four men in a black Mercedes. One man said he would be her pimp, and she would need to “work the blade,” slang for hooking. Jay said the men had quickly posted pictures of her under the “escort” tab on Backpage.com, and brought her to the hotel, where they enlisted another woman to guard her while she took dates. “They’re upstairs. They have a gun,” she told the horrified clerk, who quickly took Jay into a locked breakroom and called the police.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 4, the four men — Muhammad Malik, 32, Ibrahim Malik, 25, Yahya Malik, 23, Jerry Landers, 21 — and one woman, 20-year-old Ana Cejas, appeared in a superior courtroom in Riverside, California, draped in jailhouse scrubs and shackles for a preliminary trial on human trafficking charges. Cejas was facing a 20-year sentence; all the men were looking at life sentences. All pleaded not guilty.

It was one of the first human trafficking trials in California since voters approved Proposition 35 in November 2012, a measure that upgraded street pimps to sex traffickers and imposed severe mandatory prison sentences. Successful prosecution of the five would rely solely on Jay’s testimony of what happened at the Best Western in Moreno Valley, but at 8:30 a.m. on the first day of trial, Jay was nowhere to be found.

Defendants Ana Cejas, Muhammed Malik, and Jerry Landers.

Prop 35 was a huge victory for anti–sex trafficking advocates, passing 81% to 19%; over 10 million Californians voted in favor of stricter laws against slavery and sexual exploitation. Supporters argued that increased mandatory sentences would mean that people who exploit other human beings for their labor — whether through prostitution or unpaid domestic work — would be less likely to reoffend because they would be serving longer prison sentences. And with longer sentences, victims would be encouraged to come forward because they would know their tormentors would be severely punished.

Before Prop 35, the longest prison sentence under state law for pimping and pandering was eight years; now it’s 15 years to life. Prop 35 also mandates that traffickers pay direct restitution to their victims. “Unlike crimes driven by psychiatric disorders, human trafficking is a criminal business driven by profits,” says Daphne Fung, the founder of Californians Against Slavery, one of the most public advocates of Prop 35. “It can be stopped if we cut the profits and increase the risk.”

The notion of prostitution being recast as a human trafficking issue instead of a routine vice problem started to gain popularity in the last few years. Demi Moore and now ex-husband Ashton Kutcher started a nonprofit, Thorn (formerly DNA Foundation), to advocate against human trafficking abroad and in the states in 2009. In 2011, the power couple enlisted Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, Jamie Foxx, and Bradley Cooper to star in a series of public service announcements that proclaimed, “Real men don’t buy girls.”

Prop 35 went into effect in January 2013, giving law enforcement, county prosecutors, and judges a new tool to go after complex national or transnational crime networks that use false imprisonment, force, or extortion to extract labor from other people. Police department vice squads throughout California have reformulated their strategies for combating the illegal sex trade. Orange and Los Angeles County vice officers, for instance, have called Prop 35 a “paradigm shift.” Before Prop 35, it was standard procedure for cops to pose as “johns,” arrest any prostitute who offered them sex for money, and then jail the woman, without ever pursuing charges against her pimp.

Now, says Anaheim Police Lieutenant Steve Marcin, “human sex trafficking victims equate to modern-day slaves,” adding that the goal at the law enforcement level has become to “rescue women from their pimps, and redirecting their lives.”

But what some police and prosecutors are learning is some women don’t want to be rescued.

Survivor story for “Vote Yes on Prop 35” campaign. youtube.com / Via californiaagainstslavery.org

After Jay failed to show up for court, staff from the Riverside District Attorney’s office drove 80 miles to Panorama City to pick her up from a motel room she was sharing with a friend. She arrived at 1:30 p.m. in jeans, a white tank top, and flip-flops, and took the stand while her alleged abductors looked on. One of the men sneered at her, sucked his teeth, and shook his head. Another broke into what seemed to be genuine loud sobs and wails.

Jay seemed dazed on the stand, at times freezing and not answering simple questions for minutes at time. When she did answer, her responses came in murmurs and whispers. After two hours of slow questioning, Jay corroborated the following story through a series of mostly yes or no questions posed to her by Deputy District Attorney Howard Fineman:

Jay, 18, was born in Bakersfield, a rural, working-class town two hours north of Los Angeles. She had moved to gritty Panorama City — known for its rows of junkyards and mechanic shops — in the eastern San Fernando Valley about a month prior to her abduction on Aug. 15. On that day, while walking down Long Beach Blvd. in Compton (where she was visiting friends) at dusk, a black Mercedes parked alongside her. Two men got out. One man, Ibrahim Malik, grabbed her by the arm and forced her into the backseat of the car. Muhammed Malik, who was seated in the passenger seat, told Jay that he and Ibrahim were pimps and she would be working for them now. Then they took her phone away.

They drove to a Rodeway Inn on the way to Moreno Valley. In the parking lot of the Rodeway, Muhammad demanded Jay perform oral sex on him and Yahya Malik. Jay complied. When Fineman asked why she complied, Jay responded, “Because he told me to,” and that she was worried she’d “get beat.”

Jay testified that she was left unattended for 30 minutes in the car, then brought into the hotel room. Ana Cedja arrived at the hotel, told Jay that Ibrahim was her pimp and assured her that she “would make a lot of money.” That night, Jay said she had sex with Muhammad and slept in the same bed with him. The next day, the group drove to the Best Western and checked into two separate rooms. Jay told police that the men took naked pictures of her and posted them to Backpage.com advertising sex, and that Muhammed gave Jay his cell phone to take clients’ calls. Jay then said she was put in the other room with Ana and hid in the bathroom while Ana serviced male clients. From the bathroom, Jay texted her friend Cassandra with Muhammad’s phone (Jay claimed she went on Facebook to retrieve Cassandra’s number) and told her what was happening. Cassandra told Jay to call the police. Shortly after the text message exchange with Cassandra, Jay slipped away from Ana and went to alert the clerk she had been kidnapped.

Prop 35 revised the California evidence code to prohibit lawyers from bringing up a victim of human trafficking’s sexual history or “commercial sex acts” as a way to impugn their character or credibility. That’s what’s supposed to happen, anyway. In Jay’s case, it was put out on the table immediately.

“Isn’t Special your pimp’s name?” Ryan Markson, a criminal defense attorney representing one of the defendants, asked pointedly. Markson was one of six defense attorneys set to cross-examine Jay’s story over the two-day trial. She was asked how long she had been working as a prostitute.

“A month,” Jay responded flatly.

Jay said she started selling herself because some female friends talked her into it. One of them was Cassandra, the friend who told her to call the police. Jay was sharing a motel room with Cassandra in Panorama City, near a stretch of Sepulveda Blvd. known around town as “Ho’s Row.”

“Isn’t Cassandra also a prostitute who works for Special?” Markson asked.

Jay initially denied accusations about Special and Cassandra — even though she had previously told police that her tattoo was in homage to her pimp. After 20 minutes of cross-examination by a second defense attorney, Jay caved. She said lied about being kidnapped because her pimp, Special, was angry with her about going to Moreno Valley with another pimp and his crew.

That was all it took for the Riverside District Attorney’s office to dismiss the human trafficking charges against the defendants; all five were set free. Jay returned to Panorama City. The Riverside District Attorney’s office is now considering filing perjury charges against Jay.

D’Lita Miller speaking during a Prop. 35 panel discussion at University of Southern California in 2012.

“I’ll tell you exactly what happened to that girl,” said D’Lita Miller, 38, a former prostitute and gang member who now conducts trainings for police, district attorneys, and judges about sex trafficking through the nonprofit organization Saving Innocence, based in Los Angeles. “She got caught between some guerrilla pimps and her regular pimp. She was probably scared out of her mind.”

Just because a pimp and prostitute have what seems on the surface to be a consensual business or sexual relationship, there is a clear victim and victimizer, Miller said: “Prop 35 reflects that.” In other words, even if a prostitute doesn’t see herself as a victim, the law does. However, Miller argued, in order to get girls to escape this life, the state has to not only be willing to prosecute the victimizers, but also to treat the victims.

“Who went to that motel room to make sure [Jay] was OK before she testified?” Miller asked, indignant. “What services or counseling was she offered? What did they say for her to expect when she walked into that courtroom?” Miller herself has been part of two human trafficking cases — one involving her daughter. The experience demoralized Miller when, in the lead-up to the trial, she and her family were given no support to transition her daughter out of the life.

Two years ago, Miller’s 16-year-old daughter was a lookout for another teenage girl who was in a car with a john. Miller’s daughter was in love with her friend’s pimp, who was also a gang member. Miller says her daughter changed her story several times before prosecutors were able to get the facts of the case straight. “She was scared or in love or both,” Miller said, sighing. Miller’s daughter was offered no services, no counseling, and no victim’s support. The 21-year-old pimp posted $1 million bail and began to threaten Miller’s family, forcing them to relocate. The Millers scraped money together from friends and family to live in a motel room for close to half a year before the trial began.

“Before my daughter went to court, I sent her to two weeks straight of therapy so she could heal and get her head together,” Miller said. Miller believes that Prop 35 is a step in the right direction — especially because those convicted are forced to pay restitution to victims — but argues that the law the will not make enough of an impact on victims’ lives unless the girls are provided with real services.

Dr. Lois Lee is the director of Children of the Night, a 27-bed shelter and school in Los Angeles for teen prostitutes trying to escape the life. “Lots of these girls show up thinking they are going to marry their pimp,” Lee said. “These are girls would be lucky if they were even in foster care — that would mean they were in the system. Most these girls have never seen a social worker in their lives. They have been neglected their whole lives and then here comes a man who says, ‘I will take care of you, I will buy you things, and show you affection.’” That’s an irresistible offer for girls who have been neglected and abused by their families, Lee said. “Life with a pimp is better than their life at home.”

In fact, Lee said, the new trafficking laws don’t go far enough, because they do nothing to dissolve the toxic emotional bond an abused woman feels toward her pimp. She said it’s easy for politicians and “do-gooders” to come out in favor of something like Prop 35 — it received unanimous bipartisan support — but funding social services at a county level for young prostitutes trying to escape their life is “off limits.”

“These girls don’t believe they can change their lives to become doctors or lawyers,” Lee said. “Their johns are doctors and lawyers, and they go home to their families, while [the girls] are left on the corner.”

If Lee could have her way, the biggest policy change she would make for victims of sex trafficking would be eligibility for a 72-hour psychiatric hold, like the kind that was placed on Amanda Bynes and Britney Spears when family members believed the young women were a threat to themselves. (Psychiatric holds can be put into effect only with the recommendation of a police officer or a mental health clinician.)

“These girls are the victims of trauma under great emotional stress,” Lee said. Once in a psychiatric facility, Lee said, women trying to escape the life would be able to receive care, observation, and a treatment plan from doctors. Perhaps from there, they could enter a long-term residential facility so they could begin to undo the damage. At Children of the Night, young girls are enrolled in school, given counseling, and taken on field trips; Lee also tries to buy girls the outfits they want or splurge on trips to upscale salons, out of her own pocket.

The girls also go through a kind of re-education training, learning the ways men manipulate and trap women into prostitution, often through a lot of early attention, affection, and promises that descend into abuse and coercion. Eventually, Lee said, the girls almost always break away from their pimps.

“We have to prove to these girls that there’s a commitment to make their lives better,” Lee insisted.

But that’s assuming girls even find their way to Children of the Night. Or they are still young enough to qualify to get in. Even though Children of the Night is less than a mile away from “Ho’s Row,” half of its beds are empty. The hourly motels along Sepulveda Blvd., however, are completely full.

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