Human trafficking is a major concern for Cumberland County District Attorney candidate Jonathan Sahrbeck.
Sahrbeck, an independent residing in Cape Elizabeth, currently works as a prosecutor in the DA’s office where he leads the Human Trafficking Unit.
In campaign materials, he declares his focus is “not only on prosecuting traffickers and targeting buyers of sex (aka “Johns”) through undercover prostitution stings, but also in educating law enforcement about the tell-tale signs of victimization.”
“It is vital those on the front lines see these women as victims instead of criminals so we can target the actual perpetrators of these heinous crimes,” he writes.
Yet in a recent case, Sahrbeck was on the front lines and did exactly the opposite. As the Forecaster’s Juliette Laaka first reported, Sahrbeck charged Yan Liu, a woman from China seeking asylum in the United States, with engaging in prostitution despite clear indications she was a victim of sex trafficking.
An employee at the Knights Inn in South Portland, where Liu was arrested, described her as “very nervous and scared.” Witnesses said two people guarded her room and forced her back inside when she tried to leave. Multiple men were seen entering and exiting the room.
Online ads for sex with the motel’s address and Liu’s cell phone records, which showed she traveled across several states, led police to suspect trafficking. They even stopped a man who had just left the motel, who admitted to paying $130 for sex.
Liu, who doesn’t speak English, did not provide much information to her defense attorney, let alone prosecutors and police.
None of Liu’s abusers were arrested. She was the only person Sahrbeck charged with a crime — one which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.
Sahrbeck’s apparent strategy was to use jail and the threat of a conviction to force Liu to testify against her captors. She was released after posting her $1,000 cash bail.
Liu denied engaging in prostitution, pleading not guilty in her first court appearance. In June, she signed a plea agreement that didn’t require her to change her plea. Her case will be automatically dismissed if she avoids re-arrest for a year.
Sahrbeck first told the Forecaster he prosecuted Liu because he wasn’t sure she was being trafficked. Later, he argued prosecution was a good way to monitor trafficking victims. Then, he blamed Liu for the DA office’s failure to open an investigation into her abusers.
Bre Kidman, a Maine criminal defense attorney and grassroots advocate for sex workers rights, told The Phoenix that Sahrbeck’s conduct was not effective or appropriate, and said they were “appalled that it happened — and that it happens as a matter of regular practice.”
Kidman explained that jailing victims to force them to testify is retraumatizing and actually discourages people from seeking help. Sahrbeck’s assertion that this somehow protects victims is “kindly described as short-sighted, but truly borders on delusional,” they said.
“If law enforcement cannot be trusted not to lock sex trafficking victims up when they have been the victim of a crime, why would anyone being trafficked ever trust law enforcement to help rectify the situation?” Kidman argued. “Why should they?”
“The trauma of incarceration hinders recovery — both by delaying a person’s access to the services and counseling they might otherwise be able to get if not incarcerated and by literally, physically keeping them held against their will after having only just left a situation where they were held against their will.”
Prosecuting victims, Kidman said, “will only deepen mistrust for law enforcement among those being trafficked and, ultimately, incentivizes victims to make themselves harder to find.”
Sahrbeck shared the Forecaster’s article on Facebook, writing that it showed the “sad reality” facing victims in Maine, and that “it is a (sic) very difficult to make a case since the victims are among the most vulnerable we encounter.”
Kidman called it “gut-wrenching” that someone with “so little capacity to understand the people he claims to be serving could potentially be the most powerful criminal justice policymaker in Cumberland County.”
“It is never appropriate or effective to keep ‘tabs’ on a victim by ensnaring them in the criminal justice system,” Kidman said. “It is never appropriate or effective to criminalize the status of being the victim of a crime — regardless of whether or not the victim cooperates with investigations.”