By: MEGHAN POOLE
When J.C. was sixteen-years-old, she made the trek from Minnesota to California alone, expecting to be greeted by a new boyfriend who promised to “take care of her.”1 Laron Darrell Carter, otherwise known as “Birdd,” purchased a bus ticket for her and waited for her to arrive. When J.C. finally got to Los Angeles, she was met by a nightmare, rather than a loving boyfriend.
New “Relationship” Was a Nightmare from the Start
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Carter took J.C. to a local hotel, told her she would be working in commercial sex, and directed her to pose for photographs in lingerie. Carter then posted the photographs in an advertisement on Backpage.com. Realizing that the promises he made to her were a lie, J.C. escaped for a short time. However, without any money or shelter, she returned to the hotel, where Carter beat her and whipped her with a belt. The abuse continued, peaking in January 2013, when Carter slammed J.C.’s head into a car window and sexually assaulted her.2 J.C. escaped to a nail salon and was eventually connected with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.
Trial, Sentencing, and Appeal
After J.C. escaped, investigators discovered the extent of Carter’s crimes – he had been trafficking multiple girls since 2003. Throughout the five-day trial, evidence showed that he trafficked girls as young as thirteen-years-old and subjected some of them to violence, including punching them in the face and whipping them with belts.
In July 2016, Carter was convicted of seven counts of sex trafficking of a minor by force, fraud, and coercion and seven counts of transporting a child to engage in prostitution. In addition to J.C., Carter transported other girls from California to Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Washington D.C., and Nevada.
During the trial, J.C., who was now an adult, was seven-months pregnant. After being advised by her doctor not to travel, the trial court allowed J.C. to testify via two-way video. However, after being convicted of seven counts of 18 U.S.C. § 1591 and seven counts of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a), Carter appealed, arguing that permitting J.C. to testify via two-way video violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witness against him.
The Confrontation Clause in the Sixth Amendment provides a criminal defendant the right to face those who testify against him and the right to conduct cross-examination against that witness.3 Criminal defendants have a right to “physical, face-to-face confrontation at trial,” and video can only be used as an appropriate substitute when it is “necessary” to do so and “the reliability of the testimony is otherwise assured.”4
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant, holding that the trial court’s decision to allow J.C. to testify via two-way video violated the Confrontation Clause. The Court noted that, although J.C. was unable to travel to Court for the trial, alternatives were available for obtaining her testimony that could have “preserved Carter’s right to physical confrontation, [making] the use of a remote video procedure not necessary in this case.”5 For example, the Court noted that the defendant and counsel could have traveled to Minnesota for J.C.’s testimony, or the Court could have granted a continuance until J.C. was able to travel to the Ninth Circuit.
The Supreme Court of the United States has addressed this issue twice: in Coy v. Iowa and in Craig v. Maryland. In Coy, the Court held that the placement of a screen between the defendant and two child witnesses, which allowed the “witnesses to avoid viewing [the defendant] as they gave their testimony,” constituted an “obvious … violation of the defendant’s right to face-to-face encounter.”6 In Craig, the Court held that “a defendant’s right to confront accusatory witnesses may be satisfied absent a physical, face-to-face confrontation at trial only where” (1) the “denial of such confrontation is necessary to further an important public policy,” and (2) “the reliability of the testimony is otherwise assured.”7 During the trial, J.C. was sworn in as an in-person witness would be, and the jurors were instructed to treat the testimony “the same as a witness who is physically present in the courtroom.”8 However, J.C. had difficulty identifying the defendant because she had difficulty seeing the courtroom clearly.
In making this decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals followed in the footsteps of the Eighth Circuit and the Eleventh Circuit, who similarly held that Craig’s two-part test applies to the use of two-way video testimony. The Court vacated Carter’s convictions on the two counts involving J.C. and remanded the case back to the district court for resentencing on the remaining twelve counts.
Confrontation Clause and Sex Trafficking
The strict standard articulated by the Court can greatly impact sex trafficking prosecutions in the future. The Confrontation Clause impacts cases when prosecutors seek to admit out-of-court statements made by victims, and provides the defendant a right to confront this witness. Although some narrow exceptions exist, such as to prevent traumatized children from testifying in court and being cross-examined, the Court expressly held that a defendant’s right to “physically confront an adverse witness (whether child or adult) cannot be compromised by permitting the witness to testify by video (whether one-way or two-way) unless Craig’s standard is satisfied.”9
The live testimony of a witness has always been a complex issue, one that may impact victims’ decisions to participate in the prosecution of his or her trafficker. Victims of human trafficking may be retraumatized if they testify in court, reigniting memories of the abuse and emotional trauma they suffered at the hands of their traffickers. Human trafficking victims’ trauma has been the subject of recent legislation, most notably in New York state, which just joined 48 other states (and the federal government) in passing legislation that states child sex trafficking victims would no longer have to testify in court.10 However, this is not applicable to Carter, since the witness in Carter was an adult at the time of trial.
Whether or not a trafficking victim decides to testify against his or her trafficker in court, the Ninth Circuit makes clear that the right to physical confrontation must be protected. The standard for making exceptions to the Confrontation Clause is clearly a very high standard, as demonstrated by the fact that Carter’s constitutional right to confront his adverse witness was deemed violated by live video testimony.
- 1 Los Angeles-area Man Charged With Transporting Teen from Minnesota to California for Prostitution, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Apr. 21, 2014), https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/los-angeles-area-man-charged-transporting-teen-minnesota-california-prostitution.
- 2 Id.
- 3 U.S. Const. Amend. 6
- 4 United States v. Carter, 907 F.3d 1199 (9th Cir. 2018) (citing Maryland v. Craig, 497 U.S. 836, 850 (1990)).
- 5 Carter, 907 F.3d 1199, 1199 (2018).
- 6 Coy v. Iowa, 487 U.S. 1012, 1020 (1988).
- 7 2017 Federal Human Trafficking Report, Human Trafficking Institute (2017), available at https://www.traffickingmatters.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2017-Federal-Human-Trafficking-Report_hi-res.pdf.
- 8 Carter, 907 F.3d 1199, 1203 (2018).
- 9 Carter, 907 F.3d 1199, 1206 (2018).
- 10 22 U.S.C. section 7102(10); Bill A.6823-b, 2017-2018 Leg. (N.Y. 2018).