Image of Hartford State's Attorney Sharmese Walcott testifying Wednesday, March 24, 2021, before the Judiciary Committee on HB 6657, An Act Concerning Human Trafficking.
Hartford State’s Attorney Sharmese Walcott testifies Wednesday, March 24, 2021, before the Judiciary Committee on HB 6657, An Act Concerning Human Trafficking.

Ninety different individuals and organizations submitted written testimony or testified Wednesday before the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee in support of a bill to allow victims of sex trafficking to vacate charges accumulated as a result of being trafficked.

The bill, HB 6657, an Act Concerning Human Trafficking, was referred to the Judiciary Committee on March 18. The current Human Trafficking statute allows for victims to vacate prostitution charges. Section 7 of the new bill will expand the vacatur statute to include any charges. 

“I was not only forced with violence to sell my body, but I was also forced to sometimes carry and sell drugs,” said Sharifa Abdullah, founding member of the Advisory Board for The Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project. “Besides being arrested in Manhattan many times for prostitution, I also was arrested for possession of drugs.”

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Victims, legal experts, and community members asked lawmakers to advance the bill because of the frequency with which victims are often forced to commit crimes as a result of trafficking that place a damper on their life, long after they are freed from trafficking.

“After escaping my last trafficker I worked hard to reclaim my life,” Abdullah said. “I got my GED. I volunteered with an ambulance corps and through that work I realized I wanted to become an EMT. I got accepted to an EMT school but before I could even start classes, I was told that because of my criminal record I could never be an EMT. I was heartbroken.”

Abdullah stumbled upon the potential of vacatur, “almost by accident.” In New York court, the prosecutor decided to vacate all of her charges, but currently, situations like hers are only being considered on a case-by-case basis. HB 6657 would allow all Connecticut victims of human trafficking to request a vacatur. 

The current language of the bill applies to “any” charge accumulated while being trafficked. This language is broader than what was initially agreed upon with stakeholders and advocates. Sharmese Walcott, state attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford, testified that she thinks this language should be limited to any charge other than A or B felonies. 

“In the version drafted and voted by the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Council, section 7 stated that victims of trafficking could seek to have convictions for any crimes vacated except the most serious in our penal code which is A and B felonies,” Walcott said. “In the bill before the committee now, any and all convictions are eligible for vactur including A and B felonies.”

Walcott said the inclusion of these crimes sends the “wrong message” to traffickers and urged the committee to rewrite Section 7 on behalf of the Division of Criminal Justice. 

“If traffickers know that the victim can have all their convictions vacated, they will use that to their advantage to force the victim to commit even more serious crimes,” Walcott said. 

One idea Walcott proposed to find a compromise would be to exclude trafficking from the list of A and B felonies that could not be vacated. 

Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, legal counsel of the Office of Chief Public Defender acknowledged that Section 7 is broader than initially decided upon, but pledged support of the bill. 

According to a January report on the bill by the Office of Legislative Research, a 2019 New Hampshire statute vacates “indecent exposure and lewdness, prostitution, or any other misdemeanor or class B felony, where the conduct was committed as a direct result of being trafficked and did not involve an act of violence.” A similar Florida statute would vacate all crimes other than serious felonies like murder.

The Quinnipiac University School of Law Civil Justice Clinic, which has been advocating for the passage of HB 6657, is in favor of including all crimes, including class A and B felonies.

“Vacatur, often, will involve turning on the trafficker and providing information about that experience,” said Cynthia Lill, executive chairwoman of the Human Trafficking Prevention Project (HTPP) and third-year law student at Quinnipiac. “If a trafficker were planning a victim could just use vacatur as a remedy, that would mean the trafficker is acknowledging the fact that they are a trafficker which further exposes them to liability.”

Lill said that in many cases victims request vactur long after they have served time as a way to help re-enter society, and that it is important to trust that judges will respond reasonably.

“We trust our judges to weigh all the evidence presented to them, including victim and prosecutorial input,” Lill said. “We do not anticipate judges will grant vacatur absent extremely compelling evidence and extraordinary circumstances.”