Brooklyn Boro

Brooklyn DA, others urge Albany to repeal loitering law and enable record-clearing for trafficking victims before end of session

June 19, 2019 David Brand and Emma Whitford
Trans women and others demonstrate at a march in Jackson Heights in July 2018. Eagle photo by Andy Katz
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With just a few hours left in the state legislative session, advocates continued urging state lawmakers to pass two bills designed to protect transgender individuals and survivors of human trafficking from involvement in the criminal justice system.

One bill would eliminate a controversial prostitution-related loitering misdemeanor that opponents say criminalizes “walking while trans.” The other would enable survivors of human trafficking to clear their criminal records of any offense they were forced to commit. Current state law only enables trafficking victims to vacate their prostitution-related offenses.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez along Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and candidates for Queens District Attorney joined advocates in calling for passage of both bills Wednesday.

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Gonzalez told the Eagle he supported the legislation before issuing statements on Twitter.

“NY lawmakers must pass the bill which helps protect survivors of human trafficking and the bill which would repeal the discriminatory loitering for prostitution law,” Gonzalez tweeted Wednesday evening. “Both are necessary to protect marginalized populations and reduce harm. I strongly support these two bills.”

“The loitering statute disproportionately impacts LGBTQ New Yorkers and does not make us safer,” added Vance spokesperson Danny Frost.

A spokesperson for Queens DA Candidate Mina Malik confirmed her support for both bills. “As a former special victims prosecutor, Mina understands that many of the low-level charges keep the sex worker — many of whom are being trafficked – stuck in a legal albatross,” Antonya Jeffrey told the Eagle. “The human trafficking clearing law will also assist in helping sex workers and victims start anew.” The other candidates did not immediately comment, though Tiffany Cabán has voiced her support for both bills on the campaign trail.

The NYPD agreed earlier this month to narrow its application of the loitering law, which opponents say enables officers to profile trans women. Section 240.37 of the state penal code gives officers grounds to arrest a person for allegedly stopping, talking to or beckoning at others in a public place. Police have used arbitrary observations — like a defendant’s “short dress” or “tight black pants” —  as grounds for arrest.

On Wednesday, advocates with Decrim NY, a new coalition made up of people with experience in the sex trades, said they believed they had the votes to pass the loitering bill. They urged a vote in the name of Layleen Polanco, a trans woman who died on Rikers Island this month while held on $500 bail stemming from a prostitution-related misdemeanor. (Polanco was prosecuted in Manhattan, by Vance’s office.)

“The speaker, the Brooklyn DA, the Manhattan DA, all the public defenders, LGBTQ Democratic clubs, immigrant rights groups, major national civil rights groups including the NAACP, and victims’ and womens’ groups have weighed in — it is critical we pass these two bills to protect trafficking survivors, TGNC communities of color, and immigrants this session,” said Nina Luo of Vocal NY. “Our communities cannot wait until next session. Neither of these two bills are controversial and if leadership fails to put them on the calendar when lives are at stake, that is nothing but acting out of cowardice.”

A 2010 state law enables victims of human trafficking to clear prostitution-related convictions, but not convictions for other offenses they were forced to commit.

“Trafficking is a lot more complex than that,” said Rosie Wang, director of Legal Advocacy and Services at the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center. “Traffickers will force their victims to do criminal actions for them, like shoplifting and carrying drugs. They’re not eligible for relief because they’re not prostitution-related but they are trafficking-related.”

The trafficking-related convictions can have a particularly severe impact on noncitizens. The offenses can ruin an immigrant’s chance of obtaining asylum or other relief while exposing them to the possibility of deportation.

On June 12, a coalition of immigrants’ rights advocates sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and other legislative leaders urging them to pass the vacature bill, S4981a/A6983a, before the session ends.

“Immigrants cannot wait another year,” advocates from various public defender organizations and local immigrant service programs state in the letter. “Waiting until the next legislative session to pass S4981a/A6983a means another year of no documentation and vulnerability to ICE. It means another year of putting our families at risk of separation, families that have lived here and together for decades.”

The Assembly passed the measure, but it had yet to reach a vote in the Senate as of 7:45 p.m. Wednesday.

Spokespeople for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office and the state Senate and Assembly Democrats did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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