Janice is 60 years old and, for many years, sold sex. "The police knew us and our flat and knew it was run well," Janice tells Broadly. Under British law, the flats she worked from would be classed as brothels by virtue of the fact that more than one sex worker was based there. For a while, police turned a blind eye. Then in 2012, the flat was raided.
"It was a terrible shock when they turned against me," she says.
During the raid, £13,000 in money and jewelry was confiscated by the police under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA). According to Janice, both had been given to her by her mother. However, as her mum was dead and she had no paper evidence of the gift, they were seized. Janice was ordered to pay an additional £2,000 in court costs for challenging the confiscation order.
Two weeks after the case finished, the flat was raided again and Janice was prosecuted for brothel keeping. At the trial, Janice was found not guilty. However, the initial £13,000 wasn't returned and she still owed the court fees from the initial POCA challenge.
Janice is now in the process of complaining to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. "They took my life savings, including money from my mom," she says. "They even tried to take my home. I was left with nothing after a lifetime of hard work. I'm not young anymore and don't know how I'll manage. My life has been turned upside down. My family found out what job I was doing and that has caused a lot of upset."
Janice's story isn't unique. Last year, Kent Police confiscated nearly £40,000 from two women accused of running a brothel in Folkestone. One woman was forced to sell her home to pay the confiscation order or face an additional jail sentence.
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Commenting at the time, Detective Chief Inspector Emma Banks said: "Officers worked long and hard to bring this particular case to its conclusion and this demonstrates that we will use the Proceeds of Crime Act wherever and whenever possible."
POCA was created in 2002 to aid the recovery of assets gained through criminal activity. Between its implementation and 2013, more than £12 million has been confiscated by the police relating to brothels, prostitution, pornography, and pimps. Of this, the police were awarded £2.26 million and the Crown Prosecution Service £1.78 million.
It can be used under civil legislation, meaning the burden of proof is reversed: the defendant must prove where assets came from. The burden of proof is lower under civil legislation, so POCA can be used even when a criminal conviction might not be possible. In a criminal trial, the case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt; whereas in a civil trial, one party's case need only be more probable than the other.
In another 2015 case, a former sex worker was pursued under POCA ten years after her conviction. A decade ago, she had been busted for working with another woman. Although she only had £300 in assets at the time, it was estimated she had made £50,000 from selling sex.
Last year, she was back in court after the prosecution discovered she now owned a house. Although the woman is now a care worker earning £19,000 a year, the judge gave her six months to hand over £50,000 or face an 18 month prison sentence.
"What POCA has done is make some things more simplistic," Mick Beattie of the Regional Asset Recovery Team tells Broadly. "Prior to this legislation it was often necessary to prove direct links between actual offending and criminal property ownership. Now the court has more discretion and under certain circumstances can make an assumption, based on the evidence presented to them, that suggest the asset is a result of criminal activity."
However, Alex Feis-Bryce, CEO of National Ugly Mugs, a scheme that provides safety alerts for an estimated 20,000 sex workers, believes that police pursuit of sex workers' assets is taking the place of protecting their safety.
[Police] can take every penny earned from years of hard work—her house, her savings, her car, her jewellery, even her children's and other family members' money.
"POCA often skews police priorities, incentivizing and targeting sex work premises that they see as easy hits to boost their resources rather than the small proportion where sex workers are at risk of harm or coercion," he says. "The National Policing Sex Work guidelines explicitly state that police should prioritize sex worker safety and only pursue enforcement as a last resort if serious organised crime is taking place or sex workers are being subjected to harm. Many of the premises that are currently raided or are ones run by sex workers working together for safety."
Nigel Richardson, criminal defence lawyer and partner at Hodge Jones & Allen, says his law firm deals annually with around 30 cases for sex workers, half of which will involve POCA.
"The majority of the cases we have dealt with have involved women working in an entirely consensual fashion, either for themselves or in an agency or massage parlor where they are just employees," Richardson says.
Sex workers run into trouble, he says, due to the "restrictive nature of the law." Money made selling your own sexual services is legal, but the fact that so many surrounding activities—working together in a flat, any administrative work around a running a brothel, soliciting—are illegal means that money generated is deemed criminal. Given the informal nature of much sex work, it can be nigh on impossible to prove which money is which.
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"Anything that falls into the 'illegal activity' realm and is successfully prosecuted is subject to POCA proceedings," Richardson says. "Cash that the police find on a raid can be seized and, unless the owner can prove that it was legitimately obtained, it can be confiscated. This is obviously a problem for women working in the black economy of prostitution."
A recent case supported by Hodge Jones & Allen involved a sex worker who had asked the owner of her massage parlor if she could work day shifts in return for opening and supervising the premises. She was prosecuted for assisting in the management of a brothel and police tried to confiscate £8,000 in cash, which she had earned through her personal sex work. Her lawyer was able to reach a settlement but, for many sex workers, this isn't the case.
The English Collective of Prostitutes has supported numerous women through POCA proceedings. Mother-of-two, Jenny, from Guildford, called the police when men threatened to torch her working flat. Police didn't pursue her attackers; instead, they charged her with brothel-keeping and begin POCA proceedings against her. Jenny lost her home and life savings. Monica from Wolverhampton was forced to pay £10,000. At the time, her baby had passed away from cot death; she was made to hand over the £1,000 she'd saved for the headstone.
"Raids and arrests of sex workers have increased since the introduction of the Proceeds of Crime Act as police now have the added motivation that they can take women's money," says Niki Adams of ECP. "Their powers are draconian and they can take every penny earned from years of hard work—her house, her savings, her car, her jewellery, even her children's and other family members' money."
A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service told Broadly: "Confiscation orders are sought to deprive criminals of the benefits of their crimes and to cause maximum disruption to future criminal activity. The CPS seeks confiscation in cases which will achieve these objectives, regardless of the type of crime being committed."
Critics suggest that POCA's confiscation legislation leaves much to be desired. Even outside the gray area of sex work, estimates of criminal earnings can be unrealistic. In many cases, the threat of a prison sentence which goes with an unpaid confiscation order can seem harsh.
Janice doesn't mince her words. "The police are vindictive," she says. "They have massive powers and use them against women whose only crime is to earn money for our family."