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Human trafficking survivors, advocates seek expansion of vacatur law

Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, is the sponsor of a measure to expand the vacatur law. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, is the sponsor of a measure to expand the vacatur law. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Human trafficking survivors and advocates say the law allowing survivors to have their prostitution convictions vacated must be expanded to include other crimes to close a gap in the justice system.

Senate Bill 691 would add misdemeanors such as drug possession, trespassing, income tax violations and insurance fraud, as well as theft and burglary felonies, which trafficking victims have on their records as a result of their victimization, advocates for the survivors say.

“This bill will include access to justice for victims who were not under their own free will and will help them escape from the perpetual cycle of servitude or sexual abuse and exploitation and be able to recover and rebuild their lives,” bill sponsor Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Wednesday.

Cross-filed House Bill 782 is scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on March 5.

A 2011 law allows individuals convicted of prostitution to file a motion to vacate a judgment if the acts were committed under duress because the petitioner was a victim of human trafficking. In the years since the law’s passage, advocates and survivors have argued that prostitution is not the only crime resulting from trafficking.

Opponents, including the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association, objected to language requiring a qualifying crime be a “proximate result” of trafficking, preferring it be a direct result, and did not want theft crimes included in the measure. The MSAA also disagreed with the proposed elimination of a current provision that requires trafficking victims to have prosecutors’ consent to file a motion.

“This is a deal-breaker for the State’s Attorneys’ Association,” director Steve Kroll said. “It’s that serious.”

Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, explained why advocates seek to eliminate the state’s attorney consent requirement.

“Prosecutors are not judges,” Jordan said. “They should not be in a position to deny access to the court. They have ample opportunity to oppose a motion under this bill. Their role as a prosecutor is not to be able to say, ‘You can file a motion, you can’t file a motion.’”

Kroll said he was not aware of any prosecutor refusing to consent to a motion and said the consent requirement was there to allow prosecutors to review records and make sure they know enough about a case to make a fair determination.

He said prosecutors agree with the intent of the bill.

Amanda Rodriguez, of the University of Maryland SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors, said the bill was necessary because convictions limit trafficking survivors’ ability to secure housing, jobs and government services.

“The impact of having been trafficked coupled with these limitations leaves criminalized victims vulnerable to re-exploitation and without the stability they need to heal and rebuild their lives,” Rodriguez said.

Jessica Emerson, director of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project at the University of Baltimore School of Law, agreed that without legal relief, some people risk being retrafficked because they lose opportunities.

“Having a criminal record makes you more vulnerable to being re-exploited because you aren’t able to obtain gainful housing (or) employment and, as a result, continued involvement in the underground economy is just what should be expected,” she said.

Rodriguez said the bill’s proponents have worked with the MSAA to address concerns from previous years. She also said bill proponents made a list of crimes directly tied to survivors’ experience of being trafficked. Emerson said the list has partially addressed prosecutors’ concerns.

Women who were trafficked told the committee their traffickers forced them to carry drugs or to break into a house and said their criminal records have proved a hindrance.

Donna Bruce said she was told to steal food or “turn tricks” in an abandoned house and wound up being convicted on theft and burglary charges.

“A lot of those things are still on my record,” she said.

Shamere McKenzie, an advocate and herself a trafficking survivor, said the bill would provide “true freedom” to survivors “who have been criminalized as a direct result of their victimization.”

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