Human Trafficking

Under California Penal Code section 236.1 it is unlawful to obtain labor or services from an individual through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. This is broadly known as human trafficking and can involve a wide variety of circumstances.

Examples of Human Trafficking
  • Newport Beach couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, “hired” Maria, an undocumented immigrant, to live in their home and provide various domestic services. The Lincolns paid Maria a small stipend, telling Maria that the rest of her pay was through the room and board they gave her. After several months, Maria wanted to leave their employ. However, the Lincolns threatened Maria that they would turn her in to their detective friend as an undocumented worker. Maria, not knowing the laws in California, remained in their employ fearing she would get arrested and deported. This may be a violation of Penal Code section 236.1 because the Lincolns used coercion and fraud to obtain Maria’s services.
  • Marcus forces his “girlfriend” into prostitution on the streets of Costa Mesa by threatening to harm her child if she does not comply. This would be a violation of Penal Code section 236.1 because Marcus used coercion and force.
  • Jill, a single working mother living in Irvine, offers to help Katrina, a young woman from a disadvantaged background. She tells Katrina she wants to help her “get on her feet” and offers Katina the opportunity to live in her home in exchange for childcare. Katrina has no resources and becomes dependent on Jill’s supposed generosity. In reality, Jill’s motive was to take Katrina in as a free nanny forcing Katrina to work for no pay other than room and board. While this may not seem like human trafficking, Jill deceived (fraud) Katrina into providing her services. (This case, however, might be very difficult for the prosecution to prove.)
  • Leslie recruits addicted, homeless people in Santa Ana and forces them to work in her drug trafficking operation. This would be a violation of the human trafficking law because she used force to obtain their labor.
Elements of Human Trafficking

Specific intent: In order to commit this crime there must be evidence that you intended to commit one of the underlying acts of trafficking, such as the intent to obtain labor or services from a victim through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. It is important to note that the victim’s consent is irrelevant. For example, in the example of Jill above, if Jill’s motive honestly was to help Katrina out – even if she paid Katrina very little other than room and board, she would not be guilty of human trafficking. On the other hand, if Jill’s motive was to obtain free nanny services and had no real interest in helping Katrina, she would be guilty of human trafficking (through fraud), even though Katrina consented to the arrangement.

Deprivation or violation of another’s personal liberty: Section 236.1 defines the deprivation or violation of personal liberty as a “substantial or sustained restriction” of another person’s liberty, which is accomplished through “force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person.” In the case of a threat, it must be reasonable to believe the threat is likely to be carried out.


Some of the more common defenses to this crime are:

  1. Lack of knowledge: In order to be convicted of human trafficking, the prosecution must prove that you had knowledge that the victim was being trafficked. If you can show that you had no knowledge of the trafficking, this may be a valid defense.
  2. Duress: If you were forced to participate in the human trafficking under threat of harm to yourself or your family, you may be able to claim duress as a defense.
  3. Consent: It's important to note that consent obtained through force, fraud, or coercion is not valid consent. However, it may be a defense if it can be shown the victim consented of his or her own free will.
  4. Mistake of fact: If you can show that you mistakenly believed that the victim was not being trafficked, this may be a defense to human trafficking. However, this defense requires a showing that your mistake was reasonable under the circumstances.
  5. Entrapment: If you were induced to commit the crime of human trafficking by law enforcement, you may be able to claim entrapment as a defense.
  6. No actual deprivation: If you can show that the victim had an unwarranted or unreasonable belief that he or she was forced or defrauded into the situation you may rely on evidence showing this as a defense.

The offense of human trafficking encompasses a number of scenarios and for every circumstance, an experienced human trafficking defense attorney is often able to identify an effective defense. Even if the defense does not exonerate the criminal act entirely, it can offer enough ambiguity to the elements of the charge that the prosecution is willing to negotiate charges on a lesser crime. Sometimes the defense is enough to convince the prosecution to drop the charges altogether.


Human trafficking is a penalty in all circumstances. The penalties vary depending on the circumstances of the crime. In any case, penalties can be very severe. That is why it is imperative to consult with an Orange County criminal defense attorney experienced in human trafficking defense immediately upon being investigated for or charged with this crime.

Under California law, a conviction for human trafficking can result in a sentence to state prison for up to twenty years. The exact penalty will depend on the circumstances of the offense, such as the age of the victim, the type of labor or services obtained, and whether the offense involved violence or coercion.

Individuals who are convicted of human trafficking in California are also required to register as sex offenders for life if the offense involves sex trafficking.

Human trafficking that involves a minor who is induced or persuaded (or event the attempt to induce or persuade the minor) to engage in prostitution carries higher penalties and can result in a sentence of life imprisonment if the offense involves “force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person.” (Penal Code section 236.1(c).)

A conviction also carries substantial financial penalties, with fines of up to one million dollars. In addition to the criminal financial penalties, individuals who are convicted of human trafficking may also face civil lawsuits from their victims. These lawsuits can seek compensation for damages such as lost wages, medical expenses, and emotional distress. The court may order the civil penalties in an amount up to three times the damages suffered by the victim.


Attorney William Weinberg has defended individuals accused of crimes, including human trafficking and related offenses, for over 30 years. His goal is to obtain the best possible outcome for his clients through a diligent and vigorous defense. He invites you to contact him for a complimentary consultation for a review of the charges against you. He will advise you of your potential defense options and if you decide to hire him, will offer you a payment plan that works with your budget. He may be reached at his Irvine office by calling (949) 474-8008 or by emailing him at

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