Reversal: Human trafficking victim entitled to post-conviction relief

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Editor’s note: This article has been corrected.

An Indiana woman who was convicted of a felony after becoming a victim of human trafficking as a minor has convinced the Court of Appeals of Indiana to reverse a denial for post-conviction relief.

At issue in A.C. v. State of Indiana, 22A-PC-1215, was whether the Vacatur Statute applied in A.C.’s case after she was denied relief by a post-conviction court.

When A.C. was 15 years old, while living in the foster care system, she met T.M. though social media and became the victim of sex trafficking.

At 17, after a sting operation on T.M., A.C. ran away from a group home and stayed with J.J., J.J.’s sister and the sister’s boyfriend in Indianapolis. There, A.C. again became a victim of sex trafficking.

During the months the minor lived with J.J., he arranged for A.C. to meet and complete sex acts with men at least five times per day, providing her with cocaine and alcohol prior to each sex act. He then kept the money.

One day in June 2017, after J.J. had stolen another man’s wallet, he gave A.C. a credit card to buy gas. The card was declined, and A.C. — who was under the influence of cocaine and alcohol — later learned the card belonged to the man who was robbed.

J.J. later had his two sisters beat up A.C., who then ran away and called Department of Child Services, which placed her in an adolescent treatment program for substance abuse.

The state then charged A.C. with Level 3 felony attempted armed robbery and Level 3 felony conspiracy to commit armed robbery. Although A.C. was a juvenile, she was arrested, charged as an adult and held in the Cass County Jail.

In March 2018, A.C., then 18, pleaded guilty to Level 6 felony assisting a criminal in exchange for dismissal of the pending Level 3 felony charges. She was sentenced to 460 days, with 458 days as time served, and one day of probation.

In June 2021, A.C. filed for post-conviction relief, seeking relief under the Vacatur Statute, Indiana Code § 35-38-10-2, and arguing that she was a minor who was under the influence of cocaine and alcohol when J.J. drove her to meet with and perform sex acts with another man, which led to the robbery.

But the post-conviction court denied the petition and the instant appeal ensued.

Under the Vacatur Statute, A.C. was required to prove that she was a trafficked person at the time she committed the offense, that the offense did not result in any bodily injury to another person, and that at the time she committed the offense, she was coerced or under the control of another person. During the post-conviction proceedings, the parties agreed that A.C. was a 17-year-old trafficked person at the time of the offense and that the offense did not result in bodily harm to another person.

Thus, looking at the evidence, the COA found A.C. “clearly met her burden of proof” and is entitled to relief via the statute.

“This evidence was unrefuted by the State at the post-conviction hearing, and on appeal, the State concedes that Petitioner presented evidence to support that she was coerced or under the control of another person when she committed the underlying offense, and that the post-conviction court’s denial of her petition should be reversed,” Judge Peter Foley wrote.

Further, the COA determined the post-conviction court erred in its statement that, even though it did not decide the case under the Vacatur Statute, “[i]f the [c]ourt were going to base a decision on this statute, the [c]ourt’s position would be that she has not met her burden as a matter of public policy, because characterizing these circumstances as ‘coercion’ or ‘control,’ would be an insult to victims of coercion and control.”

“The Vacatur Statute does not include a public policy exception,” Foley wrote. “As we have already stated, there is no discretion, and if a petitioner presents evidence by a preponderance of the evidence on the three prongs, the petitioner ‘is entitled’ to have the conviction vacated.

“Here, Petitioner presented undisputed evidence at the post-conviction hearing to satisfy the three prongs of the Vacatur Statute, and the post-conviction court erred when it denied her petition for post-conviction relief.”

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