On February 6, 2014, the Cook County court vacated the prostitution convictions of CAASE client - Joel Filmore, a survivor of sex trafficking. The court also granted a petition to seal other eligible convictions and arrests in his criminal record.
CAASE staff attorneys Sheerine Alemzadeh and Katie Gaughan litigated under the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, a legislative initiative passed in 2011 and led by CAASE's End Demand Illinois campaign. The Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act enables victims of sex trafficking to clear their records of prostitution convictions incident to their trafficking. The motion would apply to survivors who are now seeking services or have escaped the trafficking.
"Winning this case was a relief, validation, and excitement. I know my husband and I can move forward and adopt a child,” said Joel. “It shows that the last 10 years of my life have been validated."
Joel’s victory was the fourth time the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act has been used, and it illustrates how CAASE is breaking new ground and raising awareness about the effectiveness of this law. Joel’s case is a great example of how trafficked victims' experiences are being revisited and how they’re causing the court system to be more mindful of the realities of those experiences.
“It was like the criminal justice system was saying ‘we were wrong, and we didn’t help you when you needed us.’ It was a way they could critique themselves and their policies,” said Joel.
“I think it’s a great step forward, said Sheerine. “These criminal records are a huge barrier for survivors, having their records made public. This success shows them that not only can this improve your life, but you can become a more effective member of the movement to end persecution of victims. It also shows others that they can follow suit,” she said.
Joel came to CAASE in January of 2012 after learning about the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act and reached out for help with vacating his convictions. With little hope of having the motion granted, and a complete uncertainty about how long the process would take, Joel was offered some comfort from CAASE's willingness to do everything in their power to win the case.
“I wasn't expecting good things,” said Joel. “I thought CAASE had an extreme uphill battle to face.” “But CAASE told me, 'We're going to keep fighting for you.' I don't think anyone has ever said that to me, that was powerful.”
After enduring abuse both from pimps and his customers, Joel was able to get out of the sex trade. He had been arrested more than fifty times and had six prostitution-related convictions. His record was holding him back from moving on with his life and achieving goals like adopting a family and working as a counselor with at-risk youth.
“The thing with Joel is that he was an extraordinary case, and he really accomplished superhuman feats,” said Sheerine. “He went from struggling with drug addiction and sex trafficking to becoming a dedicated professor. I learned a lot from Joel, just about the ability to be able to use these painful experiences in your life to make a huge impact in the world. He’s really a remarkable person,” she said.
Joel had used his time in prison to apply for college and, when he was released, held down a job at a convenience store until he graduated. Joel aspired to do more, so he went on to earn a master’s degree and became a licensed therapist. But he didn't stop there. Joel now has a Ph.D. in Counseling Education and Supervision from Northern Illinois University.
“I was trying to map out a life plan that would allow me to move beyond my past,” Joel said. “Even though I've come so far, there were still doors closed to me.”
Like many survivors, Joel’s case was complicated further by the misunderstanding around his struggle with addiction. The criminal justice system often fails to recognize the many ways in which traffickers inflict harm upon their victims. Addiction is a form of abuse that doesn't necessarily leave an obvious trail to the trafficker, which is why it is a highly effective method of control.
"I think the biggest misconception about prostitution and addiction is that those who are trafficked choose to be there,” said Joel. “At that point in your life, you stop believing your body is your own anymore."
Legally, trafficking does not require physical restraint, bodily harm, or physical force. In Joel's case, being coerced to abuse drugs and engage in criminal behavior by his trafficker resulted in him engaging in crime and prostitution after he escaped from his trafficker.
“He was on his own for a long time after he left the control of his trafficker and we really had to help the court understand why he would still be engaged in prostitution even when he wasn’t in the physical presence of his trafficker,” said Sheerine.
“The judge did mention that it takes some time to get over addiction. You can’t imagine them suddenly turning their life around,” said Katie. “That was something we worked hard on, to change the viewpoint about addiction and coercion,” she said.
Another great challenge, not exclusive to Joel's case, was locating and identifying his trafficker. The repercussions of this were two-fold: on one hand, the victim's testimony is hard to prove and on the other, it discourages victims from going to the police.
“Traffickers set out rules and guidelines for the trafficking situation, including using an alias or nickname, concealing their true identity,” said Katie. “This puts the victim in a vulnerable position because they don’t have a legal name when they’re pursuing litigation or going to the police,” she said.
CAASE's staff attorneys and the criminal justice system alike learned a great deal from Joel’s case. His is an example and testament to the many facets of harm caused to victims of trafficking and the need for a reexamination of existing policies and attitudes held by the court system.
“Winning this case will be an argument for other attorneys to take cases that are not so cut and dry,” said Sheerine. “I think it will influence the state and the court in the way that they look at the culpability of people in the sex trade regardless of whether they conform to certain stereotypes about who is vulnerable to this and who is suffering,” she said.
CAASE has provided free legal services to over 145 clients in 2012 and continues its efforts to empower survivors and end the demand for sexual exploitation.
“No matter what the circumstances, the work that CAASE does will permeate the rest of their clients' lives,” said Joel. “My life story has been vastly changed because of the work CAASE has done.”
CAASE attorneys offer pro bono individualized legal advice, consultation, and representation following and related to sexual assault and exploitation. We tailor our services to the needs of individuals and serve survivors of every sex, race, socio-economic status, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, and immigration status.