Dear johns: Sacramento DA touts operation targeting sex trafficking financiers, but only charges one black woman
Of the 137 prostitution arrests law enforcement made so far, 71 were of women of color
According to a summary of the arrest report, Noor Mohammad Popal, 30, of Sacramento, pulled up to a Carl’s Jr. in North Highlands earlier this month and ordered himself a prostitute.
On the Wednesday evening in question, the Sheriff’s Department says, Popal drove up to an undercover deputy, posing as a sex worker in a “known prostitution stroll” along Watt Avenue, and agreed to pay $20 in exchange for oral sex. When Popal arrived at their fast-food meeting place, he was arrested on misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution and loitering with the intent of committing prostitution.
Popal had allegedly wandered into the middle of a multiagency sting targeting the men that local authorities blame for financing Sacramento County’s underground sex economy. In all, the district attorney’s office says that 39 people were arrested during “Operation: Hot Spots” on August 16 and the early morning hours of August 17. (SN&R was able to confirm the arrest of 32 individuals.)
A narrative quickly formed about why the operation took place and what it supposedly accomplished.
“Hearing the request of organizations and victims to expand our efforts in fighting human trafficking by targeting sex buyers, our law enforcement agencies are now working collaboratively to meet this challenge,” District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said in a release announcing the results of the stings.
“Our county and city law enforcement sting operations should send a strong and unified message that purchasing sex from trafficking victims will not be tolerated in our community.”
And yet, nearly two weeks later, Popal and the other alleged johns aren’t the ones facing criminal charges.
A 20-year-old black woman is.
While there’s a possible reason none of the so-called trafficking financiers face criminal charges as of yet, the symbolism accurately reflects a local tradition: While the horrors of human trafficking draw big talk from elected officials and donation-seeking nonprofits, the ones who most often end up in handcuffs are women.
Bona fide human trafficking prosecutions are rare, in part, because they’re so complicated. A week after the local stings, a court case targeting Backpage.com as an online front for sex traffickers moved one step forward and one step back.
On August 23, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Brown ruled the money laundering charges against that classified portal’s three executives could go to a preliminary hearing, but without the pimping charges the Attorney General’s Office wanted to make part of its prosecution. Both sides claimed victory following the judge’s Solomon-like ruling.
“All that’s left is some technical financial crimes and all that’s been determined today is that they have a right to have a preliminary hearing,” defense attorney Cristina Arguedas told reporters outside the courtroom. “We expect to win at the preliminary hearing.”
“Nothing is slam dunk, but we have our day in court,” countered Linda Smith, a former Washington state congresswoman and founder of Shared Hope International, a Christian organization focused on ending sex trafficking, a term it also applies to prostitution. “And that means the children have their day in court.”
Arrests of pimps, panderers and purchasers of illegal sex, meanwhile, are uncommon.
Through August 23 of this year, law enforcement agencies in Sacramento County made 17 arrests for crimes related to pimping, pandering or trafficking, according to a review of booking logs. During that same eight-month span, those same agencies affected 137 prostitution arrests. Of that number, 101 were of women and 71 were of women of color.
The 20-year-old woman arrested in this month’s sting was stopped at Watt and Myrtle avenues, a block north of where Popal was apprehended 90 minutes later. According to the superior court’s online database, the woman, who SN&R is identifying as C.W., is scheduled to be arraigned on misdemeanor counts of loitering with the intent of committing prostitution and delaying a peace officer on December 27.
This would be her first criminal offense in Sacramento County.
In an emailed statement, Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Durenberger says the johns and other individuals picked up during the sweeps could still face criminal charges.
“These arrests were for misdemeanors. With misdemeanors law enforcement has the ability to arrest and detain and then provide the arrestee with paperwork that explains when they need to show up to court for the charges,” Durenberger wrote. “Misdemeanors of this type are arraigned in court on charges typically three weeks after the original arrest date. That is why you see no charges filed yet. Charges get filed the day a person goes to court. Every case will be reviewed and if there is sufficient evidence we will file charges.”
But at least one of the coalition members that called for the sting has had second thoughts.
“To learn that only one 20-year black female is being prosecuted, that’s hugely disheartening,” said Brenda Dabney, of the Children’s Law Center of California.
The Children’s Law Center, or CLC, is one of 30 organizations belonging to the Sacramento Together coalition that formed two years ago to combat human trafficking. Dabney, firm director of the CLC’s Child Welfare Law Specialists office, said the center had been discussing the need to “crack down on johns, not just victims” with county officials for months. She didn’t know about the countywide operation until she saw it reported in the news, and said that “many of us were applauding” law enforcement’s shifted focus.
But when SN&R informed Dabney of the current status of the people arrested and Durenberger’s explanation, she was taken aback. “That is shocking,” she said. “And when I tell the others, I know they’ll be disheartened, too.”
The Law Center represents children in the foster care system. Dabney says her clients are most often young people of color. Girls of color tend to be overrepresented in both the foster care and criminal justice systems, where they face stiffer penalties than their white or male counterparts, Dabney says.
“And this sounds like a present-day scenario of what we have seen historically,” Dabney said, referring to the 20-year-old.
Dabney and other child advocates say foster children are more vulnerable to sex traffickers because they are taken from homes of neglect and abuse and placed in group home settings with little supervision and few positive role models.
“They’re easy pickings,” Dabney said. “Society has shown them that they don’t value them as much as other girls.”
That’s where pimps and traffickers come in, at first showering these children with the kind of flattery, affection and attention they’re not used to getting. Slowly, these men reveal their true natures.
Dabney says she’s been surprised at how difficult it’s been to get law enforcement to refocus its gaze on the predators, as opposed to the exploited or trafficked.
California has only recently begun treating sexually exploited individuals with a measure of compassion. Up until December 2013, the state cited a sex worker’s profession as justification to deny her victims’ benefits, even in cases of rape. Two bills signed late last year have attempted to make amends.
Assembly Bill 1761 provides human trafficking survivors what’s called an affirmative defense in knocking down any prostitution charges that occurred as a result of them being trafficked. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1322 makes it so minors can no longer be charged with prostitution crimes, as they’re not old enough to give consent.
But Dabney says cops and prosecutors find other ways to allege sex-related crimes against exploited minors, tagging them with criminal petitions of loitering or breaking curfew under the state’s Welfare & Institutions Code.
“Law enforcement gets pretty creative,” Dabney said.
No minors were recovered during Operation: Hot Spots, which involved participation by the Sheriff’s Department and police departments in the cities of Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Folsom and Rancho Cordova.
The DA’s office credited Schubert with coordinating the operation, and cited “a commitment from law enforcement to conduct operations throughout the year to reduce sex trafficking.” The DA’s release states Schubert accompanied Sheriff Scott Jones and new Sacramento police Chief Darryl Hahn on ride-alongs while the coordinated stings were underway.
The county and the Sheriff’s Department separately issued press releases heralding the operation, meant to signify law enforcement’s shifting focus, from the sex workers who sell intimacy to those who make them do so.
Of the 32 arrests that SN&R reviewed, 27 individuals had yet to be charged as of August 29. One man arrested in the area of the Sheriff’s Department’s sting was arraigned on unrelated charges. Another man had a pandering charge dropped against him. One woman had a loitering with intent charge dismissed by the superior court.
An arrest summary says Popal’s vehicle was impounded, an audio recording of the incident was booked into evidence and he was taken to jail, where he was issued a citation and released.
Three women were arrested on prostitution charges in the days following the sting operation, including a 53-year-old woman who also faces one misdemeanor count of unlawful camping.
For C.W. and those women, Durenberger says they’ll have the opportunity to get their charges dismissed if they successfully complete the superior court’s RESET diversion program for accused sex workers. In return for pleading no contest to their charges, the defendants enroll in one of two programs offering group counseling and life skills training.
“I will say that all people charged with the crimes you listed for [C.W.] would be eligible for our RESET court and be provided wrap around services, peer support and counseling to help them find a better future without a criminal conviction on their record if the program is completed,” Durenberger wrote.
Advocates for sex workers and trafficking victims say their clients see that as just another form of exploitation.
“It’s institutionalized prostitution,” Dabney said. “It feels that way for the young girls.”
Dabney said she had “my personal a-ha moment” when a young woman of color explained that having her control taken away by a court—even a well-meaning one that thinks it can help—didn’t feel so different from the force or coercion that pushed her onto the stroll. “’How are you different from a pimp?’” Dabney recalled the young woman saying.