California Propositions: Prop. 35 – Tougher penalties for human traffickers

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At first glance, Proposition 35 seems like an easy choice.

A “Yes” vote is a nod in favor longer prison sentences and higher fines – up to a million dollars – for human traffickers. Prop. 35 would also require human traffickers to register as sex offenders, and it demands that registered sex offenders disclose all of their Internet identities.

“In my 23 years as a prosecutor, I have to say, I have never seen a defendant as manipulative and dangerous as a trafficker,” said Proposition 35 co-author Sharmin Bock, an assistant D.A. in Alameda County. She said the initiative would close gaps in state law and crackdown on the lowest of the low – people who sexually exploit vulnerable women and children.

Silicon Valley businessman Chris Kelly, a former Facebook executive, has provided the bulk of funding to “Yes on 35” campaign, in excess of $2 million. The initiative is backed by two groups: California Against Slavery and the Safer California Foundation. It has the support of law enforcement associations and victims’ rights groups, the state Democratic and Republican parties and a lengthy list of elected officials, including U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Opponents have not raised any money, according to the latest state disclosures. But that doesn’t mean that Proposition 35 is without its detractors. Francisco Lobaco is legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California. He says the provision requiring registered sex offenders to divulge their online passwords raises free-speech issues. “The Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously,” Lobaco said. “And what this initiative would do, it would significantly infringe on the right of folks who have to register as sex offenders.”

Bock said it’s no longer enough for sex offenders to register their street address. She said exploitation often happens online, hidden from law enforcement.

Another potentially thorny legal question is a provision in Prop. 35 would change state evidence laws to block defendants from raising the sexual history of a victim in human trafficking during trial.

Meanwhile, the editorial boards of some of the state’s biggest newspapers – including the L.A. Times and the Sacramento Bee – say Prop. 35 is a poorly written law with inflexible penalties and a whole host of potential unintended consequences. They point out that California already has some of the toughest punishments in the nation for human trafficking. The question for voters, the L.A. Times says, is not whether they’d like such cruelties to end, but whether this measure would help to address the problem. One criticism of Prop. 35 is it would expand the sex offender registry to include human traffickers, making it a less useful tool for law enforcement to identify potentially dangerous sexual predators.

Sex-trade workers have also complained about Prop. 35. Maxine Doogan is a prostitute and one of the initiative’s most outspoken opponents. She said the measure could further criminalize people like her. “Traffic victims already have access to services, those crimes are already being prosecuted, said Doogan, “this an unnecessary law that’s going to be greatly abused.””

But Bock dismisses such notions. She says the purpose of the law is not to target prostitutes, but the rather the people who exploit them. She says existing state laws aren’t up to the job. “Risk of apprehension is low, the penalties are low, and profits are high,” she said.

The cost of Prop. 35 to taxpayers would be moderate, according to the state Legislative analyst. There would be new expenses of a few million dollars related to updating the sex offender registry. An unknown amount would be raised through increased fines, with most of that dedicated to human trafficking victims.