Bill Watch

Amendment on the Way for Bill to Shield From Criminalization Sex Workers Who Report Violent Crimes

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Last week, WitnessLA wrote about SB 233, a new bill from Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), which aims to ensure that sex workers who are victimized or who witness violent crimes are not funneled into the criminal justice system themselves when they come forward to report those crimes to the police.

Crime victims should “feel safe coming forward” to report crimes, without “fear of arrest,” according to Sen. Wiener. “This legislation is about protecting victims and increasing public safety.”

To Be Amended…

But despite its laudable goals, the bill quickly caught the attention of the California Senate Republican Caucus for language that could have catastrophic consequences.

SB 233’s authors intend to protect people engaged in sex work from being treated like criminals when they report crimes like sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, and burglary.

Specifically, people reporting these serious crimes would be safe from arrest for allegedly engaging in low-level drug and sex work-related crimes listed in the California Uniform Controlled Substances Act (CUCSA) and subdivisions (a) and (b) of Section 647, as well as Section 372 and 653.22.

The Senate Republican Caucus believes, however, that the way the bill is written could inadvertently shield any person who reports a violent crime from arrest for any crime–not just crimes related to sex work—even if they themselves committed the crime they are reporting.

In its current form, the bill text says a person reporting a violent crime “shall not be arrested for a crime, including” misdemeanor violations of CUCSA, or subdivision (a) or (b) of Section 647, or of Section 372 or 653.22 of the state Penal Code.

“In other words, as long as you are reporting a crime, you can’t be arrested for it or any other crime,” Dr. David Gonzalez, Jr. told WitnessLA. “If I went to rob a bank and shot a person during the robbery, according to this bill, all I’d need to do is call authorities and report what I’ve done, and I wouldn’t be able to be arrested for any of it.”

Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor in Public Administration and Organizational Leadership at Brandman University and an Emergency Management Coordinator for the La Habra Police Department.

“What Weiner says he wants his bill to do is a stand-up idea; victims of sex trafficking DO deserve our compassion,” Gonzalez added. “However, the bill he actually introduced goes WAY beyond just protecting victimized sex workers. It would do something entirely different and absolutely unacceptable; it would immunize a criminal from being arrested for their crimes.” The troubling language, Gonzalez said, could just be a product of “sloppy work.”

“I don’t want to think [Senator Wiener] would really be so reckless with public safety,” Gonzalez said.

When WitnessLA first asked Senator Wiener’s office about the potentially problematic language, his staff assured WLA that the bill was intended to only protect individuals from arrest for the low-level crimes mentioned—not all crimes. This was evident from the legislative digest at the top of the bill:

“Existing law criminalizes various aspects of sex work, including soliciting anyone to engage in, or engaging in, lewd or dissolute conduct in a public place, loitering in a public place with the intent to commit prostitution, or maintaining a public nuisance. Existing law, the California Uniform Controlled Substances Act (CUCSA), also criminalizes various offenses relating to the possession, transportation, and sale of specified controlled substances.

This bill would prohibit the arrest of a person for a misdemeanor violation of the CUCSA or other specified sex work crimes, if that person is reporting a crime of sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, burglary, or another violent crime.

The bill would also state that possession of condoms in any amount, in and of itself, is not probable cause for arrest for specified sex work crimes.”

Still, the issue of the “a crime, including” in the body of the bill, remained a problem, according to the Senate Republican Caucus and legal experts WLA spoke with last week about the bill.

Several days after WLA’s first conversation with Senator Wiener’s office, we were informed that the senator would, in fact, be introducing an amendment to clarify that SB 233 only exempts individuals from arrest for those low-level sex work and drug crimes.

That amendment is expected to materialize this week, likely on March 7.

According to Wiener’s communications director, Victor Ruiz-Cornejo, the hotly contested bill language is “similar … to what is in the San Francisco DA and PD guidelines.”

San Francisco Leads the Way

Last year, San Francisco became the first jurisdiction in the nation to enact a policy protecting sex workers from being arrested for misdemeanor prostitution or related charges “in order to create an environment where individuals who are victims or witnesses of violent crime are able to come forth to report violence.”

The SF Police Department’s “Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers” policy states that SFPD officers “will not arrest persons for offenses including California Penal Code sections 647(a), 647(b), 653.22, 372 and misdemeanor drug offenses, when they report being the victim or witness” a violent crime.

“Sex workers are vulnerable to violence and face barriers in reporting violent crimes to law enforcement in San Francisco,” the department bulletin states. “The criminalization of sex work is one of the primary barriers” to reporting those violent crimes.

Statistically, women and men who engage in sex work are far more likely to become victims of violent crime than the general public. Approximately 60 percent of sex workers experience violence in the course of their work, according to a 2014 report from the University of California San Francisco and St. James Infirmary. Researchers found that 40 percent of those people who reported their victimization to law enforcement rated their experience with police as negative.

“Predators view sex workers as easy targets because the illegality of their work makes the police a natural threat; abusers know most sex workers will never go to the police, and they take advantage of that,” said Pike Long, MPH, Deputy Director of St. James Infirmary.

“If sex workers risk arrest for reporting a crime, they simply won’t come forward, and violent criminals will go free,” Sen. Wiener said.

Even trafficked children have long been treated as criminals in California and across the nation. In 2016, CA legislators enacted SB 1422, a law to ensure that exploited children and teens under the age of 18 who might otherwise be charged with criminal prostitution and locked-up, are instead treated as victims and connected with treatment and other services. (One year earlier, in 2015, then-LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told department members to treat “child victims and survivors of rape,” as the victims they are, rather than criminals and “prostitutes.”)

Image: Senator Scott Wiener announces SB 233.

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