Citizen petition claims more than 800,000 signatures for anti-trafficking ballot measure

SF Public Press
 — Mar 16 2012 - 8:00pm

A nearly three-year effort to put a strong anti-human-trafficking law before voters succeeded this week, organizers said, when they counted 873,000 signatures on their petition to put the proposed Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act on the November state ballot.

The citizen-led campaign to strengthen criminal penalties against people who traffic teenagers, children and immigrant laborers on the streets of California cities, and over the Internet, has been working on the issue since 2009, when some Fremont residents started a grassroots organizing effort.

In December, the Fremont-based California Against Slavery merged efforts with A Safer California Foundation, founded by a former Facebook security director, to push for the ballot measure for the third time. With 900 volunteers working in 54 counties, they said they had succeeded.

“We’re thrilled at the outpouring of support for the initiative,” said Daphne Phung, who in 2009 founded California Against Slavery after reading shocking news reports. “By supporting the CASE Act, Californians can take a stand and say that we won’t tolerate the sexual exploitation of women and children by human traffickers.” 

Phung joined up with Chris Kelly of Palo Alto, who ran the Privacy, Safety and Security division of Facebook for four years. He started Safer California Foundation to try to stop online predators.

California is a hub of human trafficking, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with thousands of teenage girls, boys and immigrant laborers offered for sale by pimps and other abusers who control them.

The FBI has identified Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento as high-trafficking cities.

Yet California’s existing human trafficking law, Section 236.1 of the California Penal Code, is weak, say many prosecutors. They often go after traffickers using other statutes, such as those for kidnapping or sexual assault.

Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Sharmin Bock, the county’s chief prosecutor on human trafficking cases, who has overseen about 180 cases, said the law has been a slap on the wrist to johns. But it is not very useful in prosecuting traffickers, in large part because it requires prosecutors prove the use of force, fraud or coercion.

“Most trafficking victims are tricked,” Bock said, particularly teenagers who are targeted for their vulnerability, then brainwashed by into believing they are loved.

The proposed ballot measure would amend the state trafficking law to no longer require that prosecutors prove force or coercion. It also would no longer allow johns to avoid charges using the defense that they did not know a woman they paid to have sex was a minor.

Phung enlisted Bock to write the portions of the ballot measure pertaining to law. Kelly wrote the portions concerning Internet activity.

Kelly, speaking this week on a Webinar to volunteers who had gathered signatures on the petition, said he had tried to get a bill before the Legislature to require people caught trafficking over the Internet to be listed on the state’s sex offender registry. Legislators did not take up his cause. So he decided to join Phung’s effort, going straight to voters.