Holland & Knight Team Helps Trafficking Survivor Vacate her Criminal Conviction

Todd Schmid is Senior Legal Counsel at HSBC and Co-Head of HSBC’s U.S. Pro Bono Program. He is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Awards, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Holland & Knight LLP for their compassionate and devoted pro bono assistance on behalf of  “Melanie,” an immigrant survivor of human trafficking. The team included Rob Bernstein, partner, Holland & Knight LLP; Ellen Marcus, attorney, Holland & Knight LLP; Sheila Hayre, consultant and professor of law at Quinnipiac University; and Krishna Patel, consultant. 

While states have advanced laws to punish and deter human traffickers, shortfalls in the criminal justice system remain.

Too often, survivors find themselves burdened by criminal convictions which have a domino effect on their ability to rebuild their lives, even after escaping their traffickers. For non-citizen survivors, convictions adversely affect their immigration status (or ability to obtain relief) and can subject them to deportation risk. Survivors with a criminal record are often unable to secure meaningful employment, education, or housing, overwhelming their ability to move forward and build lives free from exploitation.

Sanctuary’s client Melanie, a Taiwanese trafficking survivor who was arrested in Connecticut for prostitution while being trafficked, was determined to vacate her conviction. “Melanie bravely took the initiative to cooperate with law enforcement to investigate her traffickers,” noted Amy Hsieh, Deputy Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative. “She then successfully obtained a T nonimmigrant status.” Yet as Ms. Hsieh pointed out, Melanie still faced barriers resulting from her trafficking – a basic internet search for Melanie’s name still yielded conviction results, and only successful vacatur could clear her public record.

Holland & Knight’s Ellen Marcus and Rob Bernstein began working closely with Melanie in the fall of 2017 to request vacatur from the Connecticut court of a conviction tied to her trafficking. Despite its existence on the books, the vacatur statute had not yet been tested in the Connecticut courts, and there was no clear-cut procedure for placing this type of case on the state docket. When they brought Melanie’s well-researched case to the attention of the Connecticut Office of the State’s Attorney, the diligent work that Ellen and Rob put in paid off, and the state’s attorney, seeing its merits, took the case forward with the papers that the Holland & Knight team prepared, yielding a successful result for Sanctuary’s client. “Working on Melanie’s case highlighted how enormous this bureaucracy is and how difficult it is to navigate even for those with legal training,” noted Rob. Charting new territory required diligence, patience, and a thoughtful, collaborative approach.

In reflecting on their work, Rob and Ellen emphasized the lasting influence that pro bono work can have on clients. “This case underscores just how important it is for lawyers and law firms to do pro bono work,” said Rob. “Clients are not always going to find the right resources on their end. Many are dealing with threats to their health and safety and will never have the chance to dig themselves out. Lawyers are told to stay in their area, to not take risks.” Yet Ellen and Rob encourage fellow lawyers to roll up their sleeves and to be unafraid to act boldly on behalf of clients. “Even if it isn’t your primary area of expertise, with a bit of training, you can achieve rewarding results,” said Ellen. “Don’t hold back.”

Their story shines a light, too, on the power of collaboration. Ellen and Rob were keen to involve experts early on. To make Melanie’s case as strong as they could, they contacted Krishna Patel, a seasoned former federal prosecutor and an active member of numerous human trafficking task forces, and Sheila Hayre, professor of law at Quinnipiac University with expertise in immigration law and human trafficking, for their guidance and support. Seeing Melanie’s situation as a marquee example of the vacatur law’s true intent, both enthusiastically rose to the occasion. “There’s work to be done in training law enforcement that instead of thinking of someone as a ‘prostitute’ engaged in criminal activity, someone they find on the streets could be a trafficking victim,” Krishna observed. While the process of vacating a criminal conviction can itself be nuanced and sometimes contentious, the intrinsic link between Melanie’s victimization as a trafficking survivor and the conviction for prostitution made her case, in Krishna’s mind, an obvious one to take forward.

The pro bono team highlighted just how contagious Melanie’s collaborative spirit was. And Melanie was quick to shine a light on the effect their work will have as she continues to rebuild her life:

“Each of you made it a reality. I sincerely thank each of them for helping vulnerable people like myself. Because of the team, I will live a good life, and one day hope to pass on the love, kindness, and compassion that they have shown me.” — Melanie.

Join us at our virtual Above & Beyond virtual celebration on October 29, 2020, as we honor the outstanding pro bono work of Ellen, Rob, Krishna, and Sheila. Click here to RSVP for free.

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.