Criminalizing trafficking victims, decriminalizing pot possession

Trying the victim

Sixteen-year-old “Angela” was a “case study” in the challenge domestic human-trafficking victims represent to law enforcement. Forced into prostitution at age 11, she wasn’t discovered by local police until several years later, when she was placed in the juvenile system after a man accused her of stealing his wallet and pants. Only after the DA prosecuted her as a criminal — due in part, they said, to her uncooperativeness — did law enforcement recognize her as a child victim.

Bexar County officials said last summer that Angela, who has been diagnosed with hepatitis and HIV, was finally in a “safe place,” getting counseling and medical attention. But victim advocates would like to see children like Angela jump straight to the help line, and a decision pending with the Texas Supreme Court could move the system decidedly in that direction, according to Dottie Laster, a New Braunfels-based advocate.

The case involves a girl identified as B.W., who was taken from her mother at age 11 and placed with Child Protective Services. She ran away from CPS and was picked up by Houston police officers two years later when they observed her trying to sell herself on the street. She was booked on charges of prostitution. When officials learned she was 13, they didn’t return her to CPS; instead she was placed in the juvenile system and charged with delinquency.

Ann Johnson argued to the Court on B.W.’s behalf that the child should never have been put on the “prosecutorial train.” The state holds that children under the age of 14 cannot consent to sex. Period.

“Despite their discovery that one of the passengers on that train was a 13-year-old, mentally deficient child with undeniable evidence of sexual exploitation, no one to this day has pulled the emergency stop cord to say, ‘Wait. We’re supposed to be handling this issue differently’” Johnson said.

When Harris County Assistant DA Dan McCrory stumbled in his defense of B.W.’s prosecution, Justice Harriet O’Neill asked, “Why in the world would a prosecutor want to put her through the criminal, sort-of quasi-criminal, system?”

“We already know what happened to this juvenile when she was in the custody of CPS; she was on the street being a prostitute,” McCrory responded.

Interestingly, Johnson also alleged the police didn’t make any attempt to track down and interview the 32-year-old man B.W. identified as her “boyfriend” — a violation of B.W.’s due process under the U.S. Constitution, she said.

Laster disputes Harris County’s assertion that it is necessary to place children like B.W. in the juvenile-justice system for their own protection.

“You can protect a child when they’re in danger without charging them with a crime,” she said. “I believe if they rule to protect the victim that it could greatly change the way juveniles are protected in Texas; if they rule to punish the victim, it could set us back years and cause harm to many more juveniles, or minors, children. However you want to say it, I still look at them as children.”If Texas judges find their way to the federal mindset, they will discover that “any child in a commercial sex is considered a victim of trafficking,” Laster said.

Of course, this is Texas. Worse. This is Houston we’re talking about. The city was pegged last year as the national chid-trafficking hub. Judging from the position of the Harris County DA’s office, reform — despite the training that Laster, now working with and running her own consulting group, has given many of its law-enforcement officers — may come most grudgingly.

Scientist, Hacker,

Soldier, Spy

The sophisticated hacking of a major UK climate-research center two weeks before the woulda-been-historic international gathering on climate change in Copenhagen this past December “bore all the hallmarks of a coordinated intelligence operation,” according to Sir David King, former science advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“It was an extraordinarily sophisticated operation,” King told the Guardian. “There are several bodies of people who could do this sort of work. These are national intelligence agencies, and it seems to me that it was the work of such a group of people.”

Such an agency, he added, could be marshaled only by a foreign government or, perhaps, well-funded U.S. “anti-climate-change lobbyists.” The hack — and its subsequent mass misinterpretation and mischaracterization by U.S. media outlets such as FOX — played a central role in undermining momentum for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen.

Obama, widely criticized for turning Copenhagen into a photo-op to announce agreements that hadn’t actually been reached, came back to Washington with an edict for the federal government: Reduce global-warming gases by 28 percent by 2020. In response, the U.S. Department of Defense committed to doing one better, with plans to cut its emissions by 34 percent by 2020. “Non-combat” emissions, that is: The ill-defined War on Terror will continue to rack up a monster carbon bill.

One of the top beneficiaries of the DOD’s fossil-fuel purchases is San Antonio-based Valero — ranked fourth among the agency’s fuel contractors with Fiscal ’08 earnings of $1.04 billion. The hometown crew  just edged out the Bahrain Petroleum Company ($1.02 bil) and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company ($918 mil) for the honor, according to the Defense Energy Support Center. Seems like a plausible motive for the company’s pump-based anti-climate-legislation ad campaign … but is it enough to motivate top officers to fund a band of federally trained cyber-warfare renegades to virtually storm the East Anglia Climate Research Unit?

Utter conspiratorial nonsense, I’m sure.

Valero’s contracts do make American Apparel’s $14-million arrangement for battle uniforms, coats, and trousers for the U.S. Air Force (being stitched together in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas) sound like small (American-grown, organic) potatoes. Still, there are plenty of other San Anto outfits earning less than a bil perannum from Uncle Sam’s armed forces. Some recently announced new or renewed contracts fueling the all-points conflict with ground stations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen:

LaBatt Food Service and Sterling Foods are keeping those Meals Ready to Eat as real as possible with continued $9-mil and $38-mil contracts, respectively, for “full line food distribution” and bakery goods.

Valero Marketing & Supply Co. earned another bump of federal largesse with $118 million for “aviation turbine fuel” out of the Corpus refinery.

Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney Military Engines bagged another $6-million contract for continued “maintenance, logistics and engineering supplies and services” performed in San Antonio for F-16A and F-16B engine parts.

Decypher Technologies, Ltd., P3S Corp., and SpecPro Technical Services each took a $93-mil contract for hyper-technical gobbledygook, i.e. “administrative and functional support, medical and biomedical research assistance, clinical and clinical hyperbaric medicine services, environmental bio-terrorism support, technology evaluation and research studies support services to Brooks City-Base and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base units.”

• Three percent of an $8-mil Lockheed Martin project expected to showcase the potential of dedicated space for conducting “cyber security experiments” is also coming to San Antonio.

Progressive prosecution

Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz is working to overcome DA Susan Reed’s objection to “cite and summons,” known more affectionately as “the marijuana ticket law.” Passed by the lege in 2007 and implemented post haste by Travis County and several other law-enforcement departments, the law allows officers to issue tickets for a handful of nonviolent misdemeanors that previously required a trip to the Frank D. Wing detention facility `if you’ve followed our stories re: Wing and jail-abuse complaints, beginning with “The story that didn’t run,” on December 2, 2009, you might like the idea of avoiding the place very much`. Eligible offenses include driving with a suspended license, tagging and criminal mischief causing damages of less than $500, and, yes, carrying four or fewer ounces of pot. Offenders would be required to show up for an appointed court date and face the judge, who would have the full array of standard sentencing options at his or her disposal. Fail to appear and a warrant for arrest would be issued.

County Judge Nelson Wolff, who advocated for the legislation in 2007, says the intent is to keep officers on the streets and ease jail overcrowding, which has become chronic and dangerous in Bexar County `see, for instance, “Hang time,” January 20`.

“We’re trying to instill a philosophy that we put people in jail who are a threat to society, and find other ways to punish the others,” Wolff said. He questioned whether driving with an expired license is in fact more dangerous than speeding, for instance. Ticketing individuals for small amounts of pot or graffiti doesn’t worry him, Wolff says; he suggests we focus instead on enforcing the laws against “drugs that are really, really dangerous.”

The DA’s office says it is concerned that real bad guys (and gals) will slip through the cracks if Bexar County implemented the law now.

“The biggest thing is, when we issue a citation, we cannot confirm identity,” said First Assistant DA Cliff Herberg, which means that officers could miss oustanding warrants when they run background checks from the field. When Judge Wolff and other Bexar County officials were stumping for the law in Austin, they estimated that it could save the county as much as $10,000 a day, but Herberg challenges the notion that implementing a cite-and-summons system would significantly address jail overcrowding based on a two-week study his office conducted in June 2009. Of 409 defendants booked on offenses addressed by the law, 80 percent were released within 24 hours, he said. Of the remaining, only five didn’t have other charges pending when they were brought in.

Herberg says the DA also favors tough treatment of taggers, and she doesn’t think she can elect to implement the law for some eligible misdemeanors but not others, because she would “get an equal-protection clause challenge” — although since officers still have the discretion to arrest individuals rather than cite them, the QueQue supposes that’s not an insurmountable obstacle. Herberg also mentioned that a significant percentage of ticketed individuals in Travis County are no-shows, but the QueQue was awaiting data from Travis as of press time; check QueBlog this week for an update.

The biggest obstacle by far, said Herberg, is the cost of outfitting officers and deputies with equipment that would allow them to verify identities on the road. But Sheriff Ortiz is moving forward with plans to implement cite and summons. He’s just received five handheld computers that are capable of scanning and transmitting fingerprints for identification, and of using the information encoded in drivers’ licenses to register a citation with the County. Ortiz says they plan to test the devices for approximately six months, and if all goes well, they’ll work with the Commissioners Court to establish a system for scheduling court dates.

Although Ortiz’s office didn’t have a price tag for us by deadline, the Sheriff says, “It’s not that expensive,” and noted that the technology has been available for some time. “They’re minor offenses,” Ortiz says of the qualifying misdemeanors. “I don’t think those people necessarily need to come to jail.” Echoing proponents in Travis County and elsewhere, he added: “It would save some manpower.”

Ortiz and Wolff are aligned on this issue, but Reed, who is up for re-election this fall, may have an ally in San Antonio Police Chief William McManus, who is reportedly against cite and summons. A call for comment to the SAPD had not been returned as of press time.

This week on CurBlog:


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