Home Politics Statewide Politics Amber Batts Case Sheds Light on Alaska’s Struggles with Sex Trafficking

Amber Batts Case Sheds Light on Alaska’s Struggles with Sex Trafficking

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Photo by Mel Green, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Mel Green, Creative Commons Licensing.

As I walked into Nesbett Courthouse, a slight, gray-haired woman was going through security.

“Please remove your jacket, ma’am.” She had taken off everything else already.

“I’m just going to put it right back on again,” the woman said, placing her coat amongst her other belongings waiting to be scanned.

I remember thinking that that was such an odd comment. But when we were both standing on the other side of the body scanner, I understood why she said it: she was wearing a red t-shirt emblazoned with a large handmade graphic declaring, “Whores United 907.”

One of the security staff asked her about it, saying that she had seen a few of those shirts come through already but that she did not know to what they referred. The woman’s reply was hurried and simple.

“It’s a civil rights thing.”

We were both at the courthouse for the sentencing of Amber Batts. Earlier this year Batts was charged with eight counts of felony sex trafficking, but pled down to the one second-degree charge. She was sentenced on Monday, August 17, to five years in prison for sex trafficking and 18 months (with 12 of those to be served concurrently) for probation violation.

Only a small group of people were present in the courtroom for Batts’ sentencing, including friends and family of Batts, press, and representatives of Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of current and former sex workers and their allies, all wearing red shirts.

Not only did the color and the wording stand out in such a formal space, where ritual manifests itself in dark suits, robes, and formal language, but so did the styles. One shirt hung off the wearer’s shoulders, another shirt had been ripped and then tied back together in a pattern that allowed the camisole underneath to show through. The message seemed clear: we are not ashamed of our association or our opinion that this case is, as one CUSP member put it, a “terrible injustice.”

The Case Against Batts

Batts ran a website called Sensual Alaska that advertised escort services and sensual massage in Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Matanuska Valley. All of the people who worked with Sensual Alaska were over 18 years of age and had responded to advertisements on Craigslist and other websites, inquired through the employment section on the Sensual Alaska website, or heard of the business by word of mouth. Each signed a contract with Batts detailing the terms of their association. In exchange for providing a safe, secure, and clean location for in-calls (appointments where customers travel to sex workers), for managing the website and advertising, and screening potential customers to make sure that there were not law enforcement officers, that they had not been blacklisted by other sex workers, and that they had not been convicted of violent crimes, Batts took a portion of each worker’s profits.

Alaska State Troopers’ Ramin Dunford was the lead investigator on the Batts case. He works as part of the Special Crimes Investigation Unit (SCIU), the primary goal of which is to investigate sex trafficking cases, particularly those involving children. When he provided testimony during Batts’ sentencing, Dunford said that if Batts had dedicated herself to a legal calling, she would have run a successful business. Batts kept “good” records, an uncommon occurrence in sex trafficking cases, according to Dunford. The rates for all appointments were set by Batts and when workers were uninterested in taking a job, Batts offered it to other workers. Practices such as these are proof, Dunford said, that Batts put money above human interest and held power over the people who signed contracts with her. “A lot of the women needed money,” he stated. “To not have a job was a threat.”

Assistant Attorney General Adam Alexander stated several times that the state was not making a case that Batts used force, violence, fraud, or coercion against her workers. During the state’s investigation of Batts, her associates generally described her as nice (one described her as a “bipolar bitch” following a falling out), stated that Batts had never tried to get them to do anything against their will, and more than one expressed that Batts had encouraged her to seek help for substance abuse issues.

In a recorded interview between Dunford and Batts, Dunford says that Batts’ business was “not as detrimental” to the prostitutes as other prostitution enterprises. Batts wasn’t “feeding them drugs,” there were “no black eyes.” The only instance of what the state has termed assault occurred when consensual digital penetration resulted in the sex worker involved being scratched internally.

The Laws & Their Consequences

Sex trafficking is defined in federal law as “a commercial sex act” which is “induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” With the enactment of House Bill 359 in 2012, which allows for “promoting prostitution” charges to be redefined as sex trafficking, the state of Alaska follows a broader definition of sex trafficking. First degree sex trafficking charges include forcing a person into prostitution; however, sex trafficking in the second, third, and fourth degrees do not require force, fraud, or coercion. These charges are broad enough to cover behaviors such as promoting sex travel, owning or managing a place of prostitution, receiving money from a sex act as someone other than a prostitute, and “[engaging] in conduct that institutes, aids, or facilitates prostitution.”

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse,” says Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. But Amnesty International, Global Alliance in Trafficking in Women and similar groups, current and former sex workers, and researchers like Tara Burns, who has been studying the effect of Alaska’s sex trafficking laws on sex workers, are cautious of prostitution and sex trafficking laws.

The state’s laws deviate from federal law with regards to sex trafficking being characterized by force, fraud, or coercion, and one result of that discrepancy is that the state has criminalized techniques sex workers utilize to keep themselves safe. These techniques include aspects of Batts’ business: sex workers sharing space so as to always have a safe location to conduct business, instead of meeting clients in strange and precarious spaces; screening clients and sharing the resulting information with other sex workers, so as to avoid dangerous clients and clients who have a history of not paying for services.

The state holds that prostitution is never a victimless crime. In a statement at Batts’ sentencing, Alexander said, “The reality of the situation is that, those who see [prostitution] everyday, is that [sic] it is a dehumanizing enterprise. It’s something that results pretty directly in exploitation of the individuals involved.” He continued, talking about the “human toll that results from commodifying an individual’s sexuality, by reducing somebody to a piece of meat that can be bought and sold.” Alexander also read a statement from Batts, in which she said that “many still working as escorts or sex workers seem to want me to be a martyr and talk about safety and women’s choice. But through doing some soul searching and understanding, I see prostitution as a furtherance of victimizing one’s self, pieces of the soul bought and sold.”

One purpose of HB 359 was to remove the label of prostitute from victims of prostitution crimes. But now defendants in prostitution cases can be labelled sex traffickers. According to Patrick Ventgen, the former chief clinical officer at Akeela, being branded a sex trafficker is not unlike being branded a sex offender: it is a permanent mark. Some prostitutes might choose sex work or be forced into sex work because they are unable to procure employment or housing. That procurement will only be more difficult following a sex trafficking conviction.

Alaska’s laws are designed to allow for harsher penalties for sex trafficking and for sex trafficking cases to be more quickly processed. While questioning Batts, Dunford explained, “we want the guys putting girls in boxes.”

Burns, who has been keeping up with sex trafficking cases in Alaska, says that most sex trafficking charges have been against sex workers (who can technically be charged with trafficking themselves) and the individuals that work with sex workers handling booking and screening, the “people the public might generally think of as pimps.” As of the end of 2014, there has been only a single case with alleged force and none which involved the rescuing of juvenile victims.

Alaska’s Relationship with Sex Trafficking Victims

Sex trafficking is a terrible crime and a violation of human rights. It is commendable that Alaska wants to take a hard stance on such horrific criminal activity. But do state laws adequately define sex trafficking victims’ victims? Alaska’s laws are supposed to address the power structure of a pimp/handler and prostitute relationship. Do they address the possibility of exploitation and victimization outside of that particular scenario?

Investigators in the Batts case met with and interviewed a number of former Sensual Alaska workers, people who, by state definition, are victims of sex trafficking. In one such interview, the prostitute asks Dunford if she can continue working. He tells her that “she’s a grown woman” and can make her own choices. But he asks her to consider what will happen if she ever wants a relationship with another person. He explains that he has a family and that he wishes everyone could live that same experience. People and relationships “are gifts” and working as a prostitute can only “degrade a healthy relationship,” he says. When the woman says that she likes sex work, Dunford tells her that that’s the “devil and the angel on [her] shoulders.”

Another former Sensual Alaska worker that Dunford interviewed had a history of sexual abuse. In the recording of the interview, Dunford begins questioning the woman about how she was sexually assaulted by her stepfather as a minor before he asks her about her involvement with Batts. The assault is a topic Dunford brings up repeatedly, telling her that there are officers at her stepfather’s house, that all he needs is information. “I can text Mike,” Dunford says, possibly referring to Trooper Mike Ingram, the head of the SCIU. The woman asks about the statute of limitations, but Dunford explains that the statute of limitations does not matter in this instance, if they can get a confession from the stepfather. “If you’re not ready to talk, it’s cool,” he says, as he keeps pressing her for details. Notification noises can be heard several times throughout the recording, as well as what sounds like Dunford typing on his phone. At one point Dunford exclaims, “Let’s get him!”

Woven into Dunford’s inquiries about the assault are questions about Batts. Towards the end of the recording, after Dunford has asked the woman to sit in his car and talk with him and his partner, Dunford asks about how she met Amber, what kind of work she did for her, and details about Batts’ operation. In response to some of her answers, Dunford says, “What you’re telling me doesn’t make sense,” and, “I know different.” After nearly two hours of questioning her, Dunford says “no can do with [your stepfather],” citing an unexpected interruption. As she prepares to exit the car, Dunford asks the woman, “Do you feel like I twisted your arm?”

In a recorded interview with a third former associate of Batts’, the woman asks if she is being recorded. One of the investigators answers that she is not and proceeds with his inquiries. Later in the interview, the investigators show the woman pictures of clients and asks her if she knows any of them. When she says that she does not, an officer tells her to look again, stating that one of them specifically requested her on at least one occasion. “You are not in trouble,” the investigators tells the woman. “The way this works is that as long as the information you’re providing is accurate and you’re cooperating with our efforts…”

In Burns’ 2014 University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate research of Alaska’s sex trafficking laws and their effect on sex workers, Burns asked participants to describe interactions with law enforcement in which they reported themselves as victims of or witnesses to a crime while working. About a third were threatened with arrest, more than half did not have their reports taken, and about 6 percent were arrested. 80 percent of victims or witnesses of crimes who labeled themselves “manipulated or coerced” attempted to report a crime. The police took only 20 percent of their reports, arrested 20 percent, and threatened to arrest 60 percent.

Burns’ research indicates that most sex workers do not even attempt to report crimes. They fear being arrested and the possibility of incriminating themselves or others. They do not believe that law enforcement will try to help them.

The study also asked sex workers what they consider their biggest threat. More than a third replied that it is violence and coercion by law enforcement. Approximately one quarter of participants reported being sexually assaulted by a police officer. More than half of participants who considered themselves victims reported that they had been sexually assaulted by police.

Sex On The Clock

Senate Bill 22, enacted in 2013, made it illegal for parole and probation workers to engage in “sexual penetration” or “sexual contact” with people on probation or parole and people in custody of the state. “Peace officers” must also avoid sexual contact with people in their custody or “committed to the custody of a law enforcement agency.” But state law does not address law enforcement officials having sexual contact with crime victims.

Neither the Fairbanks Police Department (FPD) nor the Alaska State Troopers (AST) have policies in place that explicitly prohibit officers from having sexual contact with persons involved in investigations; however, Burns says that FPD and Department of Public Safety officials have indicated that such behavior would violate “professional conduct” policies, a potentially fireable offense.

The Anchorage Police Department (APD) policies are unknown. When CUSP sat down with Captain Bill Miller, Sergeant Kathy Lacey who has since retired and become a consulting producer on a reality television series about crime in Anchorage, and Lieutenant Nancy Reuter to discuss sexual contact policies, they were told that such a disclosure would “interfere with future investigations,” Burns told me.

Even if FPD, AST, and APD had policies in place that prohibited sexual contact with persons involved in investigations, this would not necessarily help law enforcement’s relationship with sex workers. Because officers participating in a sting would not be able to agree to sexual contact, sex workers could be charged with sexual assault for “nonconsensual” sexual contact with officers. This happened in Hawaii earlier this year, when police conducted a sting on a massage parlor and charged 12 prostitutes with sexual assault. Batts believes that this scenario explains a 2010 sting FPD conducted on 5 local masseuses, which resulted in multiple charges for workers, including second-degree sexual assault.

There is also the question of due process. In 1982 the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in Municipality of Anchorage v. Flanagan that a law enforcement officer having sex with a prostitute during a sting is not a violation of due process. According to Chief Judge Alexander Bryner, “Any case involving a potentially tenable due process claim would require the existence of outrageous police conduct, shocking the universal sense of justice and violating the concept of fundamental fairness.” This is in contrast to three prostitution cases in Minneapolis which were dismissed on the grounds of violating workers’ due process rights.

Strategies for Protecting Sex Workers

Over the course of Batts’ sentencing, both Dunford and Alexander referenced the state using the Batts case as a metric by which other sex trafficking cases can be judged. Batts case also provides a lense through which to examine the consequences of Alaska’s laws and ask if the state is able to sufficiently address issues that arise in sex work.

CUSP and groups with international clout, like Amnesty International, claim that decriminalizing sex work would make workers safer: sex workers could control how they conduct business, they could report suspicious activity and crimes to law enforcement without fear of criminalization, and they would be less likely to become trapped in exploitative relationships, as their work would no longer carry the threat of criminal charges. Decriminalization could also make it easier for prostitutes to exit sex work, as they would not carry prostitution or sex trafficking charges on their records.

Burns says that, even without decriminalization, it is possible for law enforcement to have a relationship with prostitutes that emphasizes protection. She cites a decision made by the Merseyside, UK police department to not arrest or pursue charges against sex workers who report crimes; instead, they treat crimes against sex workers as hate crimes. The result has been an increase in sex workers reporting crimes and in the rate of conviction for people charged with raping sex workers. A Merseyside police office is currently being investigated after allegations that he engaged in an “on-duty sex act with prostitute.”

“Unfortunately, sex trafficking and the sex trade in Alaska is a significant problem,” Alexander said. CUSP asks the state consider the effects of their laws and policies and ensure that they do not unintentionally contribute to the problem.

Julien Jolivette is a queer, transgender, lifelong Alaskan who might have a problem with adjectives. They graduated from University of Alaska Anchorage in 2010 with a BS in Anthropology. Though they told themself that they were done with school, Julien is considering taking the big graduate school plunge, focusing on social justice issues and community development.

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