In November 2003, a 17-year-old girl, “L.G.”, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree illegal possession of a weapon, a Class A misdemeanor. She’d been arrested for prostitution. Police found on her a pocket knife that she carried for protection.
Nearly 10 years later, that conviction has been expunged from her record. Last month, Judge Toko Serita of Queens County Criminal Court ruled that the girl’s crime fell within the bounds of a 2010 state law protecting human trafficking victims from prostitution-related offenses.
The decision set a new precedent in the law’s reach.
As the Brooklyn Eagle reported, this was the first time that a judge had shown that “a non-prostitution charge against a victim of human trafficking could be dismissed without prior approval from the District Attorney’s Office.” There had not been prior approval because Queens prosecutors didn’t think the law should have applied to L.G.’s offense.
The 2010 legislation made New York the first state to pass a law allowing human trafficking victims to clear prostitution-related convictions from their criminal records. It applied anytime the victim’s “arresting charge” was for prostitution or loitering for prostitution.
In her July 22 judgement, Serita asserted that by saying prostitution only had to be the “arresting charge” and not the convicting charge, lawmakers gave the courts wider authority. A judge could “avoid vacating convictions for more serious crimes,” but also vacate a conviction for any prostitution-related offense.
“The legislature fully expected the statute to provide relief to trafficking victims who were not only arrested for prostitution or loitering for the purpose of prostitution, but were also convicted of other charges,” Serita wrote.
Prosecutors had agreed to this policy before. In a 2011 Queens County case, for instance, prosecutors agreed to dismiss two drug violations and four Class B misdemeanors against a sex trafficking victim.
Their objection in L.G.’s case came down to the type of prostitution-related offense.
“There is no discernible distinction between both cases except for the fact that L.G. pleaded guilty to the crime of fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, an A misdemeanor,” Serita wrote.
L.G. entered the foster care system when she was eight years old, after her grandmother died. She bounced around from house to house. When she was 12, a man approached her on the street and invited her to live with him. That way she could escape the foster care life, he told her. Six other underage girls were already under his roof. He taught her how to be a prostitute and she began working a few weeks later.
Over the next five years, she turned tricks. One of the pimps she worked under “instructed her to carry [a pocketknife] with her for protection when she was on the street. ‘Johns’ had raped, assaulted and threatened L.G. with weapons many times while she was forced to work as a prostitute,” court documents state.
As L.G. later explained to the court:
It felt like every time I turned around, some girl was missing. Another girl I knew was raped and beaten up by a trick. She ended up in the hospital. I had already been raped by clients and was terrified of it happening again. Every time I went out I was scared of being raped or killed.
When she was arrested and charged in 2003, she copped to the weapons count and the D.A. dropped the count of “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense.”
“Her conviction for criminal weapons possession was clearly the result of her having been trafficked and therefore the arrest charge could be considered a prostitution-related offense,” the judge wrote in her decision.
The timing of the record cleansing works well for L.G. She’s on pace to graduate from a college in New York next year with a degree in public administration and social work.