November 14, 2016 | By Kristina Dolgin
Q: Can a California sex worker lose their home even if they do not work out of it? I’ve heard that if law enforcement thinks a house was financed through illegal sex work that the government can take it away.
A: This is a really good question. Law enforcement has lots of tricks up their sleeve for harassing and punishing criminalized people. Asset forfeiture, the term used for the state’s act of seizing private property and becoming its new owner, is one of the most unfair and least fought weapons of the state.
The short answer is: yes it is possible. However, before going into detail about how asset forfeiture works, it should be noted that not all home-owning sex workers are at risk and not all California counties appear to be stealing people’s homes.
In California, the two most common routes to asset forfeiture is through the seizure of any property involved in the commission of a California drug crime (Health & Safety Code Section 110000) and property involved in organized crime (PC 186.) The section pertaining to organized crime is the one most relevant to this question.
Asset forfeiture in an organized crime case is possible only when there is a criminal conviction, however this does not prevent law enforcement from seizing the property and making a home (or other property) inaccessible to the owner before there is a conviction.
In order for the state to make someone forfeit their property the person needs to have a conviction that is a “pattern of criminal profiteering activity,” which means that all of the following must be true:
1. The conviction needs to be based on at least two (2) criminal acts that have similar distinguishing characteristics and are not isolated events;
2. The crimes need to have been committed as a pattern of organized crime; and
3. The crimes need to have been committed for financial gain.
Now, in order for this to apply to a sex worker they need to be a part of organized crime, meaning that the crime needs to take place as the result of an agreement made between two or more people that seek to provide illegal goods or services. It appears that this does not apply to people convicted under simple prostitution charges under Penal Code 647(b). Relevant convictions it does apply to include: pimping, pandering, and human trafficking.
In sum, independent sex workers who own homes are not really at risk of forfeiting it to the state. Sex workers who assist other sex worker’s work (like, with scheduling/screening clients or coordinating incall spaces) do risk those convictions and are thus vulnerable to asset forfeiture of their homes.
As to the question of whether it matters if a sex worker uses the home as an incall, the answer is it does not. Asset forfeiture applies both to property used in committing a crime and that which was purchased with the proceeds of criminal activity.
By looking at the 2015 Asset Forfeiture Annual Report people can get a rough sense of whether the practice of stealing homes has been used in their county. For example: Alameda County received a total of $530,851.15 in 126 completed asset forfeitures and none appear to be homes (most are in the $1k-$5k range.) Orange County received a total of $2,576,696.47 in 156 completed asset forfeitures with several in the six and seven digit range, which can be presumed to be from the sale of homes.
Law enforcement and prosecutors must follow certain procedures before property can be forfeited. These include: filing a petition for asset forfeiture with the county court, notice must be given to all owners of the property, and forfeiture hearings must be heard.
Want to know more? Contact us through our online legal clinic.