Night Shifts Newsletter No. 9


How are inaccurate definitions and understanding of legal terms impacting policy and legislative efforts to decriminalize or legalize sex work?

Rochelle Keyhan, CEO and Founder of Collective Liberty, remains haunted by one particular case she litigated during her 6-year tenure as Assistant District Attorney, Family Violence and Sexual Assault (FVSA) Unit, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. She had unsuccessfully prosecuted a man several times for domestic violence misdemeanor cases. Though she was able to get him put on probation one time, all of the other cases were dismissed, mainly because the victims would never show up to testify.

One day, she returned to her office around 6 pm after a long session in court to find her desk stacked with a massive pile of files with that man’s name on each. Her first thought was, “ Did he murder somebody?” Turns out, he had been trafficking victims all along the East Coast, and a number of other investigators and prosecutors felt similar unease that he was an especially bad character that needed to be convicted for his crimes.

“Those people never came in because they were his victims,” she says. “I couldn’t sleep for a week. For years he’d been trafficking people, and I couldn’t stop it.”

That experience ultimately led Rochelle to found Collective Liberty in 2018. Located in the Washington, DC area, the nonprofit agency works “closely with government agencies to shift systems and improve public policy to ensure as a community we support survivors while stopping traffickers.”

Rochelle and each of those other investigators and prosecutors who hadn’t locked up this dangerously destructive trafficker or others of his ilk felt personally responsible. She knew that failure reached far beyond them, and she knew she had to fix this perplexing problem.

“We had all been failed, too,” she says. “We’re not given what we need training-wise, technical assistance-wise, technology, data and intel-wise to do a good job, but we’re the ones who directly failed the victims, so we personally feel obligated. This is screwed up on so many levels for the victims, the investigators, for everyone.”

She worked at Polaris for nearly three years where she “lead public policy and law enforcement reform for improved human trafficking investigations and prosecutions nationally, including survivor empowerment and improvement local, state, and federal legislation.” She realized the organization’s focus would remain on its National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is important, but the data collected from it is anonymous and unverified. She approached all of the major agencies such as the FBI and Homeland Security, state police departments, and attorneys general offices, yet no one wanted to completely commit to being THE entity responsible for aggressively, proactively enforcing the laws against human trafficking. According to Polaris, the multi-billion dollar criminal industry denies freedom to 24.9 million people around the world.

Fully aware of the barriers prosecutors face with limited resources, she designed Collective Liberty to acquire and compile significant amounts of data that law enforcement can leverage to take down traffickers. Their innovative web-based tool furnishes police and law enforcement agencies with everything from court documents, news reports, Freedom of Information Act requests, prostitution websites and firsthand survivor accounts. The Collective Liberty systems employ artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify connections among people, bank accounts and past prosecutions, generating approximate sketches of criminal networks involved in trafficking. 

In 2013, in the case of Da Zhong Wang, who operated massage parlors that were suspected fronts for prostitution and human trafficking, Delaware detectives used Collective Liberty’s tools to arrest and indict Wang. He was later found liable for three RICO racketeering violations, each of which carries up to $100,000 in civil penalties. (They pursued $700,000 in fines but the judge only levied $120,000, she told me.) It was labeled a “first of its kind” verdict in Delaware. During the investigation, the attorney general’s office requested that Collective Liberty train about 50 police officers and lawyers in human trafficking responses, while also providing data, intelligence and technical assistance – all of the services Rochelle knew were critical in such cases.

In a March 16, 2020 article about Collective Liberty in The Washington Post, Oliver Cleary, deputy attorney general for the Delaware Department of Justice, said: “They walked us through the mechanics, the logistics, the underlying philosophy, and the cultural nuances of these types of illicit massage parlors in America. These tools are completely invaluable. If you read some of the depositions of the officers in the [Wang] case, some of their testimony is directly informed by what they learned from Collective Liberty.”

Cleary went on to state they would continue working with Collective Liberty.

To date, they have trained more than 10,000 investigators across 450 jurisdictions, with the main focus being how to build a case against a trafficker. Though you might think it should be a standard best practice today, that skill has only recently become part of law enforcement training, usually through in-service training from consulting firms.

Rochelle graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BA in English from UCLA. After speaking with her, I was not surprised to learn that she had served as Editor In Chief of FEM, UCLA’s Feminist News Magazine, or was Co Founder/Captain/Competitor of UCLA’s Speech and Debate Team. (Watch her infectiously impassioned video on Collective Liberty’s landing page to confirm my observation.) The Southern California native then relocated across the U.S. to earn her Doctor of Law at Temple University’s James E. Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia.

As Philly’s ADA, Rochelle handled a variety of cases, including securing conviction in Philadelphia’s first two human trafficking trials involving pimp-controlled sex trafficking of minors and adults. Pennsylvania had enacted its Anti-Human Trafficking Law in 2014, and she had advised on the statutory amendment. 

She also prosecuted additional cases involving the following trafficking types: domestic servitude, personal sexual servitude, remote interactive sexual acts, illicit massage parlor trafficking, outdoor solicitation, residential brothels, child sex trafficking, and escort services.

During our conversation, it was clear that Rochelle is frustrated by the constantly confusing and inaccurate communications on both sides of the decriminalization issue.

“Right now, on both sides, the anti-trafficking and the sex worker’s rights advocates are emotional and myopically focused on their own personal needs,” she says. “Instead of at least acknowledging the other side and saying ‘I see how that’s your need but it conflicts with mine, and I’m choosing mine,’ both sides just tell each other they are all liars, and the sex workers say trafficking is not real or that it barely happens.”

In addition to compiling abundant data to the contrary regarding criminal trafficking networks and following legislative efforts nationwide, one of her central commitments is to ensuring that everyone is clear on legal terms involved in the issue, specifically “legalization” and “decriminalization.” Her strategic goal for 2023, she says, is to be a leader in the conversation because she is a legal expert and because the amount of data that is available and growing steadily should enable more honest, informed conversations.

“Sex worker’s rights advocates use ‘legalize’ and ‘decriminalize’ interchangeably in a way that’s not always accurate,” Rochelle says. “So, if they’re having a policy conversation with legislators talking about decriminalization, and the legislator is in support of it, but then it gets down to the language and what they are proposing is full-on legalization, then the conversation gets all messed up. We’re no longer talking the same language anymore. Perhaps, if they used the right language, it wouldn’t be such a shock to the legislators.”

That is why her central focus for now is at the definitional level. 

“I have my own opinions of what policies make the most sense, but nothing will be productive if we’re all deciding our own definitions of words that have very specific legal terms,” she continues. “You can’t just decide it means what you want it to mean and expect the conversation to lead to a productive outcome.”

All of which contributes to everyone yelling at each other instead of having intelligent, rational discussions or debates that all start with the correct definitions of terms, as effective arguments must. She describes the current climate around the legalization or decriminalization of sex work as “a factual mess and a procedural mess.” 

Rochelle is also fully aware that there is a broad spectrum of people who are sex workers, from what she believes is a small percentage who make a consensual choice – though she says they are often younger and only “love it” for a few years – to people who are coerced into sex work to pay the bills and survive, to those are forced into some form of sex work by a trafficker. 

One of the most widespread areas of common ground on both sides is the belief that there is no reason to arrest anyone engaged in prostitution.

“If someone is engaged in prostitution, the assumption always should be that they are vulnerable,” Rochelle says. “There’s a reason they are doing what they are doing that an arrest is just going to exacerbate, so how dare we?”

Not arresting potential victims is the starting point for reforming our approach to anything related to the sex trade, she believes. However, there does need to be a codified policy or approach to addressing the sex trade to combat human trafficking effectively.

“Having [prostitution] on the books still allows us the probable cause to do searches or investigate or follow up,” Rochelle explains. “It opens doors to search warrants and finding who potential perpetrators are. So, you enforce through investigation to find the higher up perpetrator. You don’t have to arrest the person.”

Rochelle was leaving for Rome the day after we spoke. She’s been spending a lot of time in Europe to study the various approaches to the sex trade, not all of which are successful, many of which only increase human trafficking, most of which are also inaccurately represented by advocates on both sides of the sex trade divide.