Public Safety

Human Trafficking Poses Unique Challenges for Prosecutors

The victims of human trafficking can be physically brutalized or psychologically abused. Drugged, threatened or lied to with false offers about a better life. Some have their identification or legal documents stolen or destroyed by their tormentors.

“I really can’t stand that we have modern-day slavery. We have to end it,” said Summer Stephan, who oversees prosecution of human trafficking for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office. “How can we claim to be a civilized society when we’ve got girls in a motel with ten men a night or people working without wages? It’s not right.”

She believes the new full-time Human Trafficking Task Force announced Tuesday (see video above) will deal a significant blow to a criminal enterprise that sexually exploits children and adults or forces them into labor.

Having worked with these kinds of cases for 13 years, Stephan has seen first-hand how the crimes ravage lives. And she’s experienced the difficulty of bringing justice to the perpetrators.

“The reason that it has become such a favorite, if you will, in criminal enterprise is that trafficking humans gives criminals such a high profit and it’s much harder to detect,” said Stephan.

Human trafficking is a very close second to narcotics trafficking in San Diego, Stephan said. Establishing this task force was the top item on a regional wish list of County leaders and law enforcement.

“The same focus that we put on organized crime in the area of narcotics needs to be put in the organized crime of humans being trafficked,” she said.

If officers stop a car and there are narcotics in the car, that’s an easy prosecution, she said. If you stop a car and there’s a young girl in the car with an older man, and she tells you she knows him and he’s simply giving her a ride home, there is no probable cause. This is especially true if she doesn’t have any apparent bruises or appears to be in distress.

In some cases, victims don’t even view themselves as such. Instead, they might think of it has having a bad boss or boyfriend.

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“Unlike narcotics, victims can be silenced and the young ones can also be brainwashed into thinking that this is a lifestyle that they want. It makes it very difficult to prosecute. So it requires a lot of expertise and a lot of devotion of resources,” Stephan said.

Investigators have also noted that much of the activity, particularly sex exploitation, is now moving away from the streets and onto the internet. Traffickers peddle victims on various sites such as Craigslist and can remain anonymous, she said. This practice means that it’s not just happening in one or two jurisdictions, but in various ones – wherever a motel has available rooms.

Task force members can now erase jurisdictional lines and work together to investigate and gather evidence to prosecute. The officers will be located together in an office provided by the Department of Justice. The officers will work in teams and receive uniform training. Stephan said victims will also have enhanced services because of the consolidation of resources.

The law will protect victims: A first important step for someone who believes that either they are being trafficked or think they know someone who might be is to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.

Since 2003, the District Attorney’s Office has had a dedicated sex crimes division, which Stephan headed for many years. Various law enforcement agencies also established their own task forces, but they were operation-driven and often required officers or agents to work overtime for any investigations or enforcement.

 “We want to stay ahead of the criminals and this task force is another step in the right direction. It’s pooling expertise, resources, intelligence and information sharing,” she said.


Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact