A Global Pro Bono Network Helps Survivors of Human Trafficking Clear Their Criminal Records

Survivors of human trafficking often have criminal records as a result of being trafficked. Although their crimes may have been committed under duress from their traffickers, these survivors are burdened with convictions for crimes like drug possession and prostitution. Enacted in 2017, the California Vacatur Law allows survivors to have their criminal records sealed and convictions vacated for nonviolent crimes directly related to having been trafficked.

Unfortunately, survivors’ frequent lack of resources and general reluctance to willingly reengage with the legal system means that many are either unaware of or have not taken advantage of the opportunity to have their convictions vacated. To this end, the International Action Network for Gender and Equity Law (IANGEL)—a Bay Area nonprofit with a global network advocating for women’s human rights, reproductive justice, and the end of gender-based violence—offers a program that trains attorneys how to represent survivors of human trafficking in post-conviction relief proceedings.

Founded in 2013 by attorney and activist for justice Nancy Newman, IANGEL connects attorneys with opportunities to lend pro bono legal assistance locally, nationally, and globally on a wide array of issues. As well as covering the pertinent law, IANGEL’s vacatur training teaches attorneys how to successfully work with trafficking survivors using a culturally-responsive and trauma-informed approach.

Survivors of human trafficking tend to come from legally and socially vulnerable populations, including recent immigrants and people trapped in cycles of poverty. (While the large majority of trafficked individuals are women and girls, people of all genders are trafficked and IANGEL's pro bono network helps everyone.) Those benefiting from the trafficking often push trafficked individuals into crimes intentionally, as a means of control. Because of the way our criminal justice system currently functions, law enforcement is often not equipped with the training that would allow arresting officers to identify and respond accordingly when a person is coerced. Trafficked individuals are thus prone to accumulating extensive criminal records.

Why Post-Conviction Relief Matters.

Conviction and arrest histories have a significant, negative impact on survivors. Many applications for public assistance require disclosure of criminal records and many programs and opportunities are unavailable to those with criminal records. Specifically, a criminal record can prevent survivors from obtaining employment, pursuing education, applying for loans, accessing immigration relief, and receiving government assistance for basic necessities like housing. Survivors may also become involved in difficult legal battles over child custody, which perpetuates an unstable family life for all involved. Without post-conviction relief, survivors can become overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness, and they remain at risk for becoming entangled in further trafficking.

The California Vacatur Law gives survivors an opportunity to move forward with their lives. Not only does post-conviction relief allow survivors to access much-needed social services and help level the playing field in their search for employment and housing, it also provides the opportunity for our society to engage survivors in helping to end human trafficking. When survivors have greater opportunities for success and stability, they may share their stories and educate the community more broadly, influencing policy to create stronger protections for victims and survivors of trafficking. Post-conviction relief also provides a distinct opportunity for the criminal justice system to make amends with survivors in a way that wrongfully convicted individuals seldom see. It allows survivors to overcome legal barriers and begin the process of truly healing and moving on from a complicated and difficult time in their lives.

How the California Vacatur Law Works.

The elements for relief under the California Vacatur Law are set forth in California Penal Code section 236.14, which provides that a person who was arrested for or convicted of any nonviolent offense during the course of being trafficked can petition the court to have his or her record of arrest and conviction vacated. It defines “a victim of human trafficking” as a person whose personal liberty has been deprived or violated in pursuit of forced labor services, forced sexual exploitation or prostitution, or a minor who is forced to engage in a commercial sex act. (Cal. Penal Code § 236.14(t)(3).)

To obtain relief, a victim must show clear and convincing evidence that the nonviolent offense was committed as a direct result of being a victim of trafficking. Additionally, a judge must determine that the survivor is making a “good faith” effort to distance herself or himself from the trafficking experience, and that it is in the survivor’s best interest to vacate the arrest and conviction records. If the court finds in favor of the survivor, then the survivor’s criminal record is vacated and, in effect, the offenses are deemed not to have occurred. Vacatur relief also allows a survivor to lawfully state that she has never been charged or convicted of the crimes for which relief was granted.

Because the charge and conviction are removed from the survivor’s criminal record, vacatur is a superior option to expungement, which merely seals evidence of the arrest and conviction. For example, the Department of Homeland Security/Citizen and Immigration Services can access and view expunged records and use them to deport survivors but with vacatur, a survivor’s record will contain no evidence of a criminal offense.

Pro Bono Representation.

Because the California law provides relief only to those survivors who have the legal resources to pursue vacatur, IANGEL organizes trainings to maximize pro bono representation in post-conviction relief proceedings. Attorneys come away equipped with the basic tools to represent human trafficking survivors. Notably, IANGEL’s trainings address culturally-specific needs of many of the survivors as well as the effects of the trauma of being trafficked and how they affect representation.

The vacatur training is just one of several programs designed to advance IANGEL’s belief that all people have the rights to self-determination and to live freely without the fear or fact of sexual, emotional, and physical violence. IANGEL partners with nonprofit law firms around the world to help ensure trained volunteer lawyers are available to support survivors with post-conviction relief and other services. To learn more about IANGEL’s work helping people at all intersections of gender, race, sexuality, disability, and nationality experience their best lives, visit its website, where you can also donate. If you would like to view the training and/or represent trafficking survivors in vacatur proceedings, email IANGEL.