When Love (not her real name) walked in the door of the Times Square Dallas BBQ, I hardly recognized the woman I'd first seen seated in a Bronx prostitution court more than a year go. Then, she had been dressed in her judge-impressing best, gold curls pouring over her shoulders. "Twenty dollars for a blowjob," the prosecutor had smarmed in her direction. She stared at him, her mouth fixed, her eyes hard to keep back tears.
I met Love in November 2014, researching a story on New York's Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTIC). Launched in 2013, these courts purported to offer a kinder, gentler judicial response for people charged with prostitution. Instead of jail time, alleged sex workers would get six counseling sessions. However, these women (they were uniformly women, almost uniformly of color, with trans women greatly overrepresented) would still be arrested and treated as criminals by the NYPD. Counseling was only available to defendants who plea-bargained and formally admitted guilt; anyone who dared assert her innocence risked a misdemeanor charge and possible prison time.
Love's story shows how these courts fail the people they claim to help. She had once been a sex worker in the Bronx's Hunts Point neighborhood, but by the time she was arrested on the charge that brought her to the courtroom, she was out of the business and pursuing a degree as a surgical technician. The problem was, the cops still knew her face, and when they saw her on the street, they likely figured she was still a sex worker and still an easy stat-padding arrest. They snatched her, threw her in a cell, then charged her with misdemeanor prostitution.
Faced with the time, expense, risk, and stress of a trial, almost anyone put in that situation would have pled guilty, taken the misdemeanor rap, and agreed to sessions of HTIC-mandated counseling, even if she were innocent. Love refused. Instead, she demanded a trial.
During the months of hearings, the prosecutor offered no hard proof any crime had been committed. Instead he had only her prostitution record and an undercover officer's word. Finally, one November morning in 2014, the judge declared her not guilty.
Love wasn't content just to prove her innocence. She wanted to make a point: That same month, she walked into the law offices of Michael Lamonsoff and hired an attorney to sue the city for false arrest. The case was settled out of court for $15,000, and, exactly a year after the initial trial, in November 2015, Love had the money in hand.
When I met Love again this February, 14 months later after that settlement agreement, she was wearing blue surgical scrubs and a baseball cap adorned with ornamental rhinestones spelling her name. Though exhausted from her studies, Love walked with a deserved swagger. Too often, poor people in New York and elsewhere are grist for an inhumane machine of courts and prisons. Love refused to play her part. She not only fought her charges, she extracted money from the city that had tried to place her behind bars. Love won.
"Even if you are a sex worker, and you were not working that day, fight for it. Forget about your history. Nobody's gonna say enough is enough."
Hers was a rare achievement. "Hundreds of folks have had their cases heard in the Bronx County Human Trafficking Intervention courtroom since it opened in 2013," Zoe Root, a supervising attorney at the Bronx Defenders, the legal aid group that had represented Love, told me. "Of them, Love is the only one that I know of who has brought the case to trial, won, and then been awarded a monetary settlement for false arrest."
But Love wasn't just content to take her money. She wanted others who had been falsely arrested to fight back.
"Even if you are a sex worker, and you were not working that day, fight for it," Love told me, sipping her tea. "Forget about your history. Nobody's gonna say enough is enough."
When Love was a sex worker in Hunts Point, she said, police knew where women like her lived, and snatched them whenever they ventured outside—whether they were doing sex work or not. Because many of these women were poor, and some had problems with pimps or addiction, they made deals with prosecutors rather than try to fight. One lawyer familiar with the courts told me that, even in the rare occasions when an undercover officer was caught making a false arrest, he suffered no professional consequences beyond embarrassment.
So confident were the police, said Love, that the recording devices they wore to catch sex workers soliciting often didn't work.
This is how things worked before the HTIC's foundation, and there's little sign any of it has changed. It's an efficient system: Police get easy arrests, courts get guilty pleas, service providers like like Restore NYC, an anti–sex trafficking charity that partners with the HTIC, get clients to "save." In late 2014, former New York City Judge Judy Harris Kluger, who works as the executive director of Sanctuary for Families, an anti-domestic violence nonprofit, told me that HTICs were effectively decriminalizing prostitution inside the courts by offering defendants treatment instead of jail time—but sex workers and alleged sex workers don't get a say in a process that cuffs them and sends them to cells or counseling. So mute are they that the police do not refer to the sex workers they arrest as people. According to Love, they call them simply "bodies."
Even for those who most needed help, Love said, the HTIC was "a band-aid to something that needs stitches," and the classes and counseling offered are grossly inadequate when stacked up against the poverty, homelessness, abuse, and addiction faced by many people they were meant to serve.
"Classes do nothing for you," she told me. "After that class ends, where do I sleep, how do I eat, do I still have to hide from the pimp?" Though HTIC judges often claim sex workers are trafficked, they are not provided with housing, the most basic need of anyone fleeing a trafficker. When an abusive marriage left Love homeless, domestic violence detectives occasionally chipped in to buy her a single night in a hotel room, but otherwise, her only options were the ER, a psych word, or a filthy, dangerous shelter.
Despite these problems, the HTIC model has gone national, with the newest branch opening up in Nashville this January. Linda Poust-Lopez recently took over as the judge at the Bronx HTIC, and according to a lawyer familiar with the court, under her tenure the court has begun offering far more lenient plea bargains. This helps defendants, but also makes refusing to plead guilty an even greater risk.
Love had a message to others falsely arrested for prostitution: "You can sue. Don't just be another body that they need."
A born performer and sometimes stand-up comic, Love had recently begun giving testimony in church. After taxes and fees to her lawyer, Love had $10,000 of settlement money left. She gave $2,000 to her daughter, who was marrying her girlfriend of eight years in Jamaica. On her phone, Love kept pictures of her mother of the bride dress, a beaded wonder colored mermaid green. The rest of her settlement went to setting her life back on track. Love planned to fix her credit, and to pay off the driving ticket her abusive ex-husband had saddled her with, so she could finally get a license.
"I'm going to buy myself a car, drive the fuck out of here," she said. She plans to go to South Carolina or Atlanta, where her family was from, and put a down payment on a home. Her graduation is this summer. After that, she was done with New York.
"The next picture you get, I'm going to be in my graduation gown," Love told me, grinning. "Guess what I'm going to be wearing under my graduation gown."
"A garter belt."