A package of bills introduced into the State Legislature by San Luis Obispo Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham aims to take on California’s human-trafficking problem.
Cunningham, who represents SLO County and northern Santa Barbara County, said at a press conference Friday that the bills provide better protections for victims of human trafficking and require people convicted of soliciting those victims to register as sex offenders.
Human trafficking is a $150 billion global enterprise, he said, with a quarter of the victims being minors. California has the highest per capita rate of human trafficking incidents, he said.
“We have to give our folks the tools they need to fight trafficking wherever they find it, and in the courtroom,” Cunningham said Friday in front of a crowd of law enforcement and elected officials from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
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Here’s a look at what the four bills, introduced on Jan. 3, would do:
▪ Assembly Bill 1735: Protective orders. State law currently allows a 10-year protective order for a victim of trafficking after a conviction only if the victim is a minor. Cunningham’s bill would authorize 10-year protection for victims of trafficking (sexual or forced labor), pimping, pandering and domestic violence victims.
▪ Assembly Bill 1736: Statements at trial. The law currently allows prosecutors to introduce prior sworn testimony of a victim as evidence against the defendant if that victim is legally unavailable to testify at trial. If those prior sworn statements contradict other, non-sworn statements the victim made before the sworn statements, those non-sworn statements are not admissible as evidence. Cunningham’s bill would allow for a victim’s prior inconsistent statements to be introduced at trial.
▪ Assembly Bill 1737: Simplifed definition of pandering. There are currently six definitions for pandering that describe different means by which the same offense is committed. This causes confusion for juries, according to Cunningham’s office, which may receive jury instructions on multiple definitions describing the same offense. AB 1737 would synthesize the six definitions into one: “A person who arranges, causes, encourages, induces, persuades, or procures another person to be a prostitute, with the intent that the other person engage in an act of prostitution, is guilty of pandering, a felony.”
▪ Assembly Bill 1738: Offender registry. California’s Megan’s Law requires that the state maintain a sex offender registry database. However, according to Cunningham, the law includes a loophole for people convicted of soliciting or engaging in sexual activity with a minor they knew was a victim of human trafficking. This bill would require tier 2 registration for people convicted of the actual or attempted commission or soliciting of a sexual act with a minor, if the person knew the youth was being trafficked.
All four bills were forwarded to the Assembly’s Committee on Public Safety or Judicial Committee on Jan. 16, according to the Legislature’s website.
Human trafficking has been identified as a priority for law enforcement officials in San Luis Obispo County for several years, spurred by recent incidents, and led to the formation of the county Human Trafficking Task Force. Those efforts have also led to a significant change in thinking by law enforcement, with officials recognizing that people who are trafficked are victims and should be treated as such, not as criminals.
In 2016, the county prosecuted its first two homegrown cases of sexual human trafficking; Richard Scott Brooks of San Francisco was convicted of trafficking a Los Osos teen from the Bay Area and selling her sexual services to former Cayucos firefighter Oscar Higueros. Brooks was sentenced to 61 years in state prison; Higueros received 167 years.
Another trafficking case involving two Chico residents accused of pimping out a 15-year-old Manteca girl from a San Luis Obispo motel is currently set for trial in May.
“Highway 101 is a trafficking corridor,” Cunningham said. “This puts our our county, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara at the front lines in the fight against trafficking.”