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California Human Trafficking Laws & Defense

Penal Code 236.1

California law prohibiting human trafficking can be found at Penal Code 236.1. Human trafficking is defined as the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor

Human trafficking laws under PC 236.1 forbid a person from violating another person's personal liberty with the intent to receive forced labor or commercial sexual activity against the other person’s will.

Commercial sexual exploitation means receiving anything of value from the forced sexual conduct of another person. Force can include fear, duress, or threats of violence.

Violation of the personal liberty of another means placing a substantial restriction on the liberty of another. This means defendant must have accomplished the restriction of liberty by means of force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or another person. This is evaluated under a reasonable person standard, meaning that under the circumstances a reasonable person would believe that the person making the threat would likely carry it out.

There are several variations of human trafficking crimes under California law. By far the commonly charged is charged under PC 236.1.

Sex Trafficking Crimes: PC 236.1

Sex trafficking, under California Penal Code 236.1, is the act of forcing, coercing, or transporting a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. Sex trafficking usually occurs in strip clubs, brothels, and massage parlors, but online escort services, homes, or even street prostitution, can serve as a location for human trafficking crimes.

Labor Trafficking Crimes: PC 236.1

Labor trafficking, also charged under Penal Code 236.1, is the act of forcing a person to work for little money, or no money at all. Labor trafficking is common is sweatshops and homes, but can occur in what otherwise appears to be a legitimate businesses.

In order to prove human sex trafficking charged as PC 236.1, the prosecutor must prove.

  • The defendant either deprived another person of personal liberty or violated the person’s personal liberty
  • When the defendant did so, he or she intended to obtain a benefit for sexual services performed by the sex worker (victim)
  • When the defendant did so, the other person (victim) was under 18 years of age.
  • Note: For Labor Trafficking punishment the act of forced labor does not need to include sexual activity and the victim does not need to be under the age of 18.

Sentence & Punishment for PC 236.1

Human trafficking charges are classified as felonies. The punishment for Human Trafficking can range from probation without jail to life in prison. Below is a list of common human trafficking crimes and associated jail or prison lengths.

PC 236.1(a) Human trafficking of forced labor. Felony charge with a maximum prison sentence of twelve years.

PC 236.1(b) Human trafficking with intent to commit a sex act. Felony charge with a maximum prison sentence of twenty years.

PC 236.1(c)(1) Attempting to, persuading, or causing another person to engage in a commercial sex act as a minor, such as pimping or pandering a minor or causing a minor to engage in prostitution. Felony charge with a maximum prison sentence of twelve years.

PC 236.1(c)(2) Human sex trafficking of minor by force or violence. Felony charge with a maximum prison sentence of fifteen years to life.

Sex offender registration: If found guilty of PC 236.1 the defendant will be ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his or her life (PC 290).

PC 236 crimes are not considered serious or violent under California law (except PC 236.1(c)(2)); however, some convictions of human trafficking can trigger a third strike under California's Three Strikes Sentencing Law.

In addition to a possible prison sentence, criminal conviction of PC 236.1 carry other harsh punishments, including: adverse consequences for professional licensees and non-United States citizens, penalty fines (up to $500,000 for PC 236.1(c)(1) and 236.1(c)(2)), restraining orders, possible civil lawsuits, increased penalties for future convictions, restricting probation or parole terms, and more.

Defense to Human Trafficking (PC 236.1)

No Illegal Purpose

Per PC 236.1 the prosecution must prove that the defendant intended to force another person to provide labor or services. Therefore, if the defendant is able to show that he or she did not use force or did not intend to receive a benefit from the labor or services, the DA will not be able to prove human trafficking. This sometimes occurs in pimping and pandering cases where the DA cannot prove a force element. For example, owners of strip clubs or massage parlors who employ workers who offer sexual services are not necessarily forcing the employees to engage in sex acts.

No Violation of Personal Liberty

To prove a criminal charge of human trafficking pursuant PC 236.1, the prosecution must also prove that the defendant deprived the victim of personal liberty, or violated the victim’s personal liberty. However, if the defendant is able to show that the alleged victim participated in activities of his or her own volition, such that there was no deprivation or violation of personal liberty, the defendant is entitled to an acquittal of the human trafficking charges. For example, pimping by itself does not mean that the pimp (defendant) deprived the liberty of a prostitute by the mere act of being a pimp. Most pimps provide protection and set up meetings for prostitutes with client with any deprivation of liberty to the prostitute.

More defenses to PC 236.1 Crimes

Other common defenses to human trafficking charges include: procedural defenses, insufficient evidence, mistake of fact, statute of limitations, coerced statements made by the defendant or the sex worker (prostitute), lack of jurisdiction, and more. 

To learn more about human trafficking crimes, or California penal code 236.1, including defenses to human trafficking, contact our sex crimes criminal defense attorneys today. Consultations are free and our attorneys are always available to answer your questions.


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PC 236.1 Human Trafficking

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PC 236.1: Human Trafficking

  • Accessory
  • Arson
  • Assault
  • Battery
  • Burglary
  • Conspiracy
  • Criminal Threats
  • Domestic Violence
  • Drunk in Public
  • DUI
  • Elder Theft
  • Evading
  • False Personation
  • Forgery
  • Hit and Run
  • Human Trafficking
  • Indecent Exposure
  • Kidnapping
  • Lewd Acts
  • Manslaughter
  • Perjury
  • Rape
  • Robbery
  • Shoplifting
  • Stalking
  • Vandalism
  • Vehicle Theft
  • Welfare Fraud


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Crimes related to human trafficking PC 236.1

  • False Imprisonment PC 236 & 237
  • False Imprisonment w/ violence PC 236 & 237
  • Pimping PC 266h
  • Pandering PC 266i
  • Keeping a house of prostitution PC 315
  • Prostitution PC 647(b)
  • Sale of person for immoral purposes PC 266f
  • Receiving money for forced cohabitation PC 266d
  • Abducting a minor for prostitution PC 237
  • Prostituting wife PC 266g

California Human Trafficking Laws & Defense Penal Code 236.1

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