VLJ and McCarter & English teamed up to successfully file the first petition under a New Jersey law that gives judges the power to vacate arrests and convictions for offenses committed by victims of human trafficking.
A judge in Atlantic County vacated 13 arrests and convictions from the record of VLJ's client, after lawyers presented evidence that she had been lured into a life of drugs and prostitution through lies, threats and intimidation.
Besides being the first vacatur petition case under the New Jersey Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act of 2013, the case provides a recipe for future proceedings of its kind.
The main ingredients: a victim with a compelling case, a prosecutor committed to the process outlined in the Act and petitioners' lawyers who volunteered their time to gather the necessary evidence.
The client, identified as M.S., grew up in Passaic County and was abandoned at age 15 by her sole surviving parent. Soon she was sucked into a vortex of crime and drug abuse. Her pimp, a notorious offender in several states, branded her with a tattoo and forced her into prostitution. She eventually broke free and provided testimony that put the pimp in prison for 24 years. But her criminal record remained on the books, preventing her from getting any job that required even the simplest of background checks.
M.S. first turned to the Urban Justice Center in New York, whose Sex Worker Project helps victims of human trafficking. The center's staff, aware that VLJ was beginning a pilot vacatur project in New Jersey, contacted Managing Attorney Jessica Kitson. The result was New Jersey's first successful vacatur proceeding of its kind.
"The relief that the vacatur provision provides is so important, because it reframes our clients as the victims that they are, and not the criminals that their records suggest," said Jessica.
McCarter partner Geoffrey Rosamond estimates that he and associate Dan D'Allesandro, working with firm pro bono director Emily Goldberg, donated about 100 hours of time to the case.
Much of the time was spent gathering records of arrests and conviction in various counties in New Jersey. The 2013 law and rules adopted by the state Supreme Court allow for the consolidation of cases around the state in one proceeding. Danielle Buckley, the assistant prosecutor who represented Atlantic County, was enthusiastically on board at the hearing before Superior Court Judge Bernard DeLury on June 19.
In sympathy with the plight of M.S., Buckley told the judge, "This is the exact reason this statute was enacted." Buckley also said her office is seeking victim's compensation funds to pay for the removal of the tattoo forced upon M.S.
M.S. still has work to do. She has a record of offenses in three other jurisdictions. Two of them, Nevada and Pennsylvania, have anti-trafficking laws, but the third, Washington D.C., does not, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking nonprofit in the forefront of lobbying for such legislation.
Geoff Rosamond says he hopes the case will publicize the existence of the New Jersey law so that victims like M.S. can become aware that relief is available. For most petitioners, affording a private attorney's services will be impossible.
Since 2010, an average of about 500 convictions for prostitution and prostitution-related loitering have been registered in the state's county and municipal courts, according to statistics from the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Geoff's work on the M.S. case is the latest example of his praiseworthy volunteerism for VLJ. He was VLJ's Pro Bono Attorney of the Year in 2008 for his work for ReLeSe. The Essex County Bar Association honored him in 2012 with the Bernard J. Kuttner Pro Bono Service Award.
"There will be a tremendous need for pro bono services in these cases," Geoff says. Jessica Kitson is coordinating VLJ's new Trafficking Victims Legal Assistance Program. If attorneys are interested in receiving additional information on the program, please contact Jessica at