According to prosecutors in California, James Joseph Jr. and Avisa Lavassani have been indicted by a grand jury on charges that they led a 14-year sex and human trafficking operation that spanned many states. The sex-trafficking ring was centered in San Ramon and Danville, California.

The Case of Human Trafficking in San Francisco

Joseph Jr. and Lavassani were each charged with conspiracy to commit human trafficking, human trafficking, kidnap for rape, kidnap for extortion and rape. Third defendant, Anthony Reynolds, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit human trafficking and human trafficking.

“I’m pleased the grand jury has indicted these modern-day slavers,” San Ramon Police Chief Joseph Gorton said. “This is another step forward toward justice for these victims. The case also illustrates that there is no typical human trafficking victim; it can happen to anyone, anywhere, including Danville and San Ramon.”

Human trafficking as a modern form of slavery has evolved profoundly over the last five years. The reasons for this evolution are rooted in long established drug smuggling methods and the widening use of social media. Now a prime player in the human trafficking trade, the drug trafficking trade spawned transnational and domestic gangs, which then added the lucrative trafficking of human beings to their accustomed businesses of moving guns and drugs. By providing an easy method of victim recruitment, social media has become a key facilitator of human trafficking, particularly in the sex worker industry. All perpetrators of human trafficking have become more sophisticated and organized, in particular, technologically.

Investigation Began Last Year

These charges are the culmination of an investigation that took place between the DA’s office and the FBI and began last year when alleged victims alerted the authorities.

Wiretaps, surveillance, and other evidence allowed the authorities to connect the suspects to a sex-trafficking operation that spanned across the nation from California to Cleveland, Miami, and New York.

Joseph Jr., Lavassani, and Reynolds were arrested last August and according to prosecutors, netted “tens of thousands of dollars a week utilizing multiple trafficking victims at one time.” The defendants arranged for women between the ages of 18 and 25 to be flown across the country to rich clients after they were lured with modeling contracts. DeFerrari added that, “They were being lured in and forced into prostitution. There were a lot of ways they were kept in this business, namely by fear, and the ultimate intimidation that if they didn’t cooperate they would be hurt or killed.”

San Ramon Police Department Chief Joe Gorton released this statement: “This investigation has shown us that human trafficking does not stay within jurisdictional lines and it doesn’t just happen in big cities or at ports and truck stops. Human trafficking can occur anywhere and it can be hidden in plain sight.”

A History of Human Trafficking

In the United States, the slave trade was officially ended in 1807 when the congress enacted legislation that stated that no new slaves were permitted to be imported. With the passing of The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, the practice of bringing slaves into this country should have long ago become a relic of the past. Most modern Americans think that this slavery is long gone, so it’s shocking to learn that the business of trafficking in humans, a present day version of slavery, is alive and even thriving in our state. California is ranked as one of the states with the worst problems of human trafficking with Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego being among the top 10 areas in the United States for the activity. There are subtle signs if we pay close attention. Sometimes a police raid of a human stash house or the story of a young woman sold into prostitution gets reported by local TV, but these stories are the exceptional few that have managed to emerge from what is a growing industry of trafficking in human beings.

Human trafficking strips victims of their freedom and violates our nation’s promise that every person in the United States is guaranteed basic human rights. The scope and size of human trafficking as an industry is difficult to imagine. It earns about $32 billion worldwide every year, and profoundly affects the world’s most vulnerable human beings – overwhelmingly women and children.

Sex Slave Trafficking

Trafficking in sex slaves has become so wide spread in California that not only is law enforcement addressing the problem, but state and private organizations have become involved. To obtain sex workers, human traffickers employ methods of force, coercion, and transporting people across borders. These crimes are primarily committed against women and children. These enslaved sex workers toil in underground brothels, brothels disguised as massage parlors, strip clubs, and via online escort services and street prostitution.

Another often frequented source of sex workers is the state’s foster care system. Many girls who are bought and sold for sex have a background of time spent in foster care. A recent study of trafficking victims in Alameda County, California, found 55 percent were from foster youth group homes. In New York, 85 percent of trafficking victims had prior child welfare involvement. And in Florida, the head of the state’s trafficking task force estimates that 70 percent of victims are foster youth.

Speaking at a symposium on human trafficking, California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris spoke of how the state’s broken foster care system is contributing to the problem. “Human trafficking is not a monolith. There are many components,” Harris said, adding that “of all the discrete parts contributing to our concern about human trafficking, our foster care system is a big one…. The foster care system in California is not working.” During her address, Harris said that 59% of children arrested on prostitution-related charges in L.A. County spent time in the foster care system. The 2010 statistic drew audible gasps from the audience of more than 100 law students, county officials and victim advocates.

The Role of Social Media

An emerging trend is the adoption by traffickers of technologies like social media to recruit victims, facilitate their crimes, and evade law enforcement. The same social media sites and online apps that many people worldwide use for personal fulfillment, traffickers use to prey on children and teens online, locate victims, and facilitate the enslavement of unsuspecting people.

The business of sex trafficking, in particular, has moved online. Traffickers use the Internet to increase their reach, both in recruiting victims through social media and finding clients via advertisements posted on classified advertising websites. In addition to moving online, increasingly sophisticated, highly-funded criminal organizations have also turned to trafficking human beings.

What’s Being Done in California

California’s booming economy, international population and liberal politics make it a hot spot for human trafficking. Recognizing this situation, in 2014, the state’s citizens got serious about standing up to the problem. In November 2012, voters passed Proposition 35 (the CASE Act) with over 81% approval.

Under the statutes of Proposition 35, human traffickers who get caught can be put in prison for 15 years to a life sentence. Prop 35 will require sex traffickers to register as sex offenders and disclose their Internet accounts. In addition, it will require criminal fines from convicted human traffickers to pay for services to help victims.

Prop 35 will provide trafficked victims the same level of protection that rape victims currently receive under the Rape Shield Law. In addition, victims will not be prosecuted if they are forced to engage in a commercial sex act by their traffickers – giving them the ability to face their exploiters in a court of law without fear of prosecution.

Prop 35 will also enhance training for law enforcement officials so that they are better able to conduct the sensitive work of dealing with victims of human trafficking and prosecuting these crimes.

Other legislative measures include SB955, which allows the courts to authorize wiretapping for the investigation or prosecution of human trafficking, and SB1165 which allows California public schools to offer prevention education against sex trafficking.

Human trafficking also requires a sophisticated response from law enforcement and its partners to disrupt and dismantle trafficking networks. Traditional law enforcement tools can be supplemented with innovative investigative techniques to combat these emerging challenges.

For example, while technology is being used to perpetrate human trafficking, that same technology can provide a digital trail – a valuable investigative tool if law enforcement can quickly and efficiently monitor, collect, and analyze online data and activities. Currently, several research and development efforts are currently underway to determine how law enforcement can use technology to combat human trafficking.

A major blow to human trafficking occurred when the FBI seized and shut down MyRedBook.com. This notorious website, a long-standing online escort directory based in San Francisco, had been operating with impunity for years. Two people suspected of running the website were arrested and charged with money laundering, racketeering and other violations of state and federal law.

California appears to be headed in the right direction when it comes to eliminating human trafficking. California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris has been very proactive in her approach to the problem for much of her political career. Gov. Jerry Brown late last year signed a raft of seven bills aimed at improving prosecution of the crime, whose victims are often forced into prostitution, domestic servitude and sweatshop labor. Additionally, there are dozens of private organizations totally dedicated to eliminating the problem while aiding victims.

Much has been done, but much remains to be done.

Daniel R. Perlman, Esq.
Law Offices of Daniel R. Perlman