In a ruling based on an Orange County conviction, the California Supreme Court ruled Dec. 28 that human traffickers who attempt to prostitute minors will receive the maximum prison sentence allowed under state law, even if they are actually communicating with undercover law enforcement personnel.
The decision reverses an earlier ruling by the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeal in the case of The People v. Antonio Chavez Moses III. The defendant was given a shorter sentence because the “minor” he was trying to prostitute online was actually an undercover Santa Ana police officer.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office, which originally sent a letter to the Supreme Court asking them to review the Court of Appeal’s decision on Moses, said “children across California will be safer as a result” of the decision.
“We believed in this law all along, and we believed in the intent of California’s voters to increase penalties for human trafficking, including those who prey on children,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a press release.
“The Orange County District Attorney’s Office has been unwavering in its commitment to investigating and prosecuting human traffickers and protecting our children. The California Supreme Court unanimously interpreted a voter initiative in the way it was intended—to allow law enforcement to continue to have the strongest tools possible to combat child predators.”
In 2016, Det. Luis Barragan of the Santa Ana Police Department created a fake profile of a 17-year-old girl on a social networking website often used by pimps to recruit women for prostitution.
Moses messaged the fictional creation, given the name “Bella,” and the two struck up a conversation about Bella prostituting, with Moses as her pimp. Bella told Moses multiple times, through text messages and phone calls, that she was 17 years old, with Det. Sonia Rojo pretending to be Bella during the calls.
After a few weeks, Moses agreed to drive from Los Angeles to a McDonald’s in Anaheim to meet Bella—but when he arrived, he was greeted by waiting Vice officers instead. Moses subsequently drove off, but was later found and detained.
Based on Judge Thomas J. Goethals decision in the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Moses would have received a maximum sentence of six years for his conviction. The judgment of the Supreme Court means Moses and other human traffickers can now receive a maximum sentence of 12 years in state prison.
The human trafficking charge is the result of the state’s Proposition 35, also called the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, which was passed in 2012. The proposition added provisions to the law so that when a person attempts to engage a minor in prostitution, they are guilty of human trafficking.
Associate Justice Carol Corrigan authored the Supreme Court’s decision, writing that the electorate’s intent to ensure effective punishment of child predators “holds the defendant liable for targeting an actual minor victim even if the defendant believes the victim is an adult.”
She added that there was no reason to conclude that the electorate “intended to impose lesser punishment on a defendant who intentionally targets a minor but fails in the attempt because the target is actually an adult.” Instead, it was more reasonable to conclude that the initiative’s stated purpose “operates as a one-way ratchet to increase punishment for both such offenders.”
Moses would normally receive 12 years for the conviction, but instead will serve a 24-year sentence after a jury convicted him with a prior strike for manslaughter.