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Aiding and Abetting Human Trafficking of a Minor

In San Bernardino Superior Court, at the end of a nineteen-day jury trial involving seventeen witnesses who testified and ninety-seven exhibits, a jury convicted Aaron James Vaughn and Victor Wilkins of human trafficking of a minor under 18 pursuant to Penal Code § 236.1(c)(1) and pimping (Penal Code § 266(h)(a)) and pandering (Penal Code § 266i(a)(1)) in multiple counts involving four women across multiple cities.  The jury also convicted the pair of human trafficking (Penal Code § 236.1(h)).
The Gist of this Article: It is not a defense that defendant did not know the victim was a minor in a case for aiding and abetting human trafficking of a minor (Penal Code § 236.1(c)(1)).       
The judge sentenced Vaughn to 19 years and eight months in state prison and Wilkins to 18 years in state prison.  Vaughn’s sentence was longer in part because he had a prior human trafficking conviction (Penal Code § 236.4(c)) and pimping a minor sixteen years or older (Penal Code § 266h(b)(1)).

The two appealed on multiple grounds, but this article will narrow its scope to just Mr. Vaughn’s argument on appeal that he could not be convicted as an aider and abettor of Wilkins of human trafficking of a minor without knowing the victim was a minor.

The Fourth Appellate District rejected this argument, first finding that Penal Code § 236.1(f), which defines human trafficking of a minor, declares that “[M]istake of fact as to the age of a victim . . . who is a minor at the time of the commission of the offense is not a defense” to human trafficking of a minor. 

Likewise, a “good faith belief the minor is 18 [or over] is not a defense to pimping . . . a minor.” People v. Branch (2010) 184 Cal. App. 4th 516, 520-522.

Mr. Vaughn apparently knew this was what the statute and the case law stated, but argued that the appellate court needed to find his conviction for aiding and abetting this offense invalid.  The appellate court, surprisingly, agreed with Vaughn as an initial matter that throughout the nineteen day trial, that there was no evidence that Vaughn knew the age of Jane Doe, who was 17.

Vaughn argued, however, in a rather circuitous manner (as we see quite a bit), that he was guilty of crimes against Jane, if at all, only as an aider and abettor.  “Aiding and abetting liability requires ‘the intent or purpose of committing, encouraging, or facilitating the commission of the offense.”  People v. Hardy (2018) 5 Cal. 4th 56, 96.  Vaughn argued, therefore, that while Wilkins, as the direct perpetrator, could be guilty even if he did not know that Jane was underage, he, Vaughn, as the aider and abettor, did have to know that Jane was underage. 

The People’s response to this was that there was substantial evidence that Vaughn knew Jane was a minor because he had previously been convicted of sex trafficking of minors, and because he spent a significant amount of time in the car with her. 

Vaughn pointed out, in response, that his past experience was with 14, 15 and 16 year olds.  Jane was 17 years and three months old.  She was not petite or underdeveloped.  Moreover, the People could point to nothing in the record that screamed “minor.”

The appellate court, returning to Vaughn’s argument that as an aider and abettor, he had to have full knowledge of an element of the crime when the perpetrator need not, the court found “almost no California case law supporting this.” 

For example, possession of a machine gun does not require knowledge of the nature of the weapon.  People v. May (2020) 47 Cal. App. 5th 1001, 1006-1009.  What about aiding and abetting the possession of a machine gun?  Similarly, robbery does not require the intent to use force or fear, it can be committed by accidentally striking the victim during the taking.  People v. Anderson (2011) 51 Cal. 4th 989, 994 – 996.  Can one aid and abet such a robbery?  Other offenses, like those here, require that the victim be a minor, but do not require knowledge that the victim is a minor (i.e., § 288, lewd and lascivious act on a child under 14); see People v. Olsen (1984) 36 Cal. 3d 638, 647 (“a reasonable mistake as to the victim’s age is not a defense to a section 288 charge.”).

Without answering these questions, which the court seemed to suggest that knowledge of the age of the victim would not be a defense to the aider and abettor, the court instead reminded everyone more fundamentally that under Penal Code § 31, a perpetrator and an aider and abettor are both principals to the same crime.  A person charged with human trafficking of a minor as an aider and abettor is subject to “a criminal prosecution under” section 236.1.  Thus, the plain language of the statute eliminates a mistake as to the victim’s age as a defense for both a perpetrator and as an aider and abettor.

We present this summary because aider and abettor liability is commonly understood to rest on facts that are distinguishable from those of the principal, but in certain offenses as to certain elements of the crime, as here, there is no distinction between being an aider and abettor or the perpetrator.

The citation for the Fourth Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Aaron James Vaughn (4th App. Dist., 2022) 77 Cal. App. 5th 609, 292 Cal. Rptr. 3d 649.

For more information about human trafficking, please click on the following articles:
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