Officials say CA sex trafficking operations are 'out of control,' call for repeal of loitering law

San Diego's DA says pimps joke California loitering law makes conditions "easy" for trafficking.

Stephanie Sierra Image
Saturday, March 4, 2023
CA mayors, police call for repeal of loitering law for sex work
CA mayors and police are trying to repeal SB-357, a law that prohibits police from citing people suspected of soliciting sex based on appearance.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Police chiefs and mayors across the state are criticizing a new law is limiting their ability to crack down on sex and human trafficking operations. Now, an effort to repeal it is underway after a civil rights organization saw our report exposing the problem in East Oakland.

"I saw what happened in Oakland, this problem is showing its head across the state," said Shane Harris, the president of a California-based civil rights organization. "We are very concerned that children's lives are at stake."

Harris sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom leading the effort to repeal SB-357, a law that went into effect in Jan. which prohibits police from citing people suspected of soliciting sex purely based on appearance. State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) authored the legislation.

"I have spoken with the governor directly, the governor has shared with me he is very concerned about this," Harris said, adding nearly 60% of trafficking victims are foster youth or have resided in group homes, per federal data. "Democrats and Republicans have reached out across the state, because they want to support the efforts to repeal this law."

San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan says a recent sting operation in the city that led to 48 arrests highlighted the need for the law to change.

VIDEO: Oakland police, FBI take action to assess trafficking concerns near school after I-Team report

Oakland officials say city will enhance patrols and install new cameras after I-Team's report revealed possible human trafficking outside a school.

"Did you know that the traffickers and the buyers were boasting on social media because of the new law that they can openly sell human beings for sex on our streets?" Stephan said during a recent press conference.

The I-Team reached out to Sen. Wiener for further comment.

"I'm sure people say a lot of things, but the reality is these pimps and traffickers, a bunch of them just got arrested," said Sen. Wiener. "So whatever jokes they were telling, they just got arrested without the repealed loitering law on the books."

Sen. Wiener introduced SB-357 after he found the prior law to be disproportionately targeting transgender women based on their appearance. But the letter sent to the Gov. criticizes that goal saying "it was missed" and "has caused great confusion to the efforts of addressing human trafficking."

"We need to repeal it," said Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo. "We need to repeal it."

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Gallo says he's joining the mayors of three Southern California cities and five police chiefs that want to repeal the law. The I-Team spoke to National City Police Chief Jose Tellez and San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit who both say traffickers feel emboldened by this law.

"My biggest concern is coming true," said Chief Nisleit. "We're seeing young women trafficked against their will. A lot of them being juveniles."

"I think the common layperson now believes prostitution is legal," said Chief Tellez.

Both chiefs say the new law is making it more challenging to crack down on trafficking operations. They both referenced a recent two-month sting that involved local, state, and federal law enforcement would've been accomplished faster and with fewer resources before the law went into effect.

"Before the bill took place, this type of operation could be accomplished by one officer that could actually see there was solicitation for prostitution taking place," said Chief Tellez.

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Attorney General Rob Bonta says he's working with state and federal partners to address concerns about the law's implications.

"We will hold people accountable, but I'm not in the legislature, the legislature will have to determine what they want to make of any unintended consequences," said Bonta.

Sen. Wiener told the I-Team he stands by this law adding repealing it would only allow for another crime targeting a vulnerable population. He says any attempt to repeal it will be met with credible opposition as the legislation is backed by CAST, one of the state's largest anti-human trafficking nonprofits.

"Why would we have a criminal law allowing a police officer to arrest you based exclusively on how you look and not on what you do?" Sen. Wiener said. "That's wrong. Police have plenty of tools to deal with trafficking and they should be doing less complaining about this law which has no impact on what they're trying to do."

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