Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Meet The San Diego DA Who Seized On The Human Trafficking Panic to Become A Law Enforcement Superstar

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan
Summer Stephan for DA / Facebook

Meet The San Diego DA Who Seized On The Human Trafficking Panic to Become A Law Enforcement Superstar


When veteran San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis announced her resignation during the spring of 2017 to run for a spot on the county’s Board of Supervisors, she was clear about who she wanted to finish her term and ultimately serve as San Diego’s next DA: her Chief Deputy Summer Stephan. Indeed, another former deputy district attorney said in an email obtained by the San Diego Union-Tribune that Dumanis envisioned a “smooth transition,” where Stephan would be gifted incumbency before having to face potential challengers in this June’s election.

In the years leading up to Dumanis’s resignation, Stephan — who was appointed interim DA in June 2017 — was a rising star at the office. Between 2005 and 2008, she was the chief of the San Diego DA’s Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Division and in 2012 she was designated chief deputy DA. Since then, she has enjoyed support from local anti-trafficking groups and advocates, boosting her as an expert and leader, and formed alliances with national lobby groups like Demand Abolition. These groups are also united in pushing for tougher law enforcement action against trafficking — but with a focus on campaigning against sex work and cracking down on sex workers’ customers.

Stephan’s elevation as an anti-trafficking voice coincided with anti-trafficking groups’ efforts to put their issue in the spotlight. In October 2015 a headline-grabbing University of San Diego study declared that San Diego was home to up to 11,800 victims of human trafficking “per year” which appeared to vindicate Stephan’s trafficking focus. A joint press conference about the study featuring Stephan and the University of San Diego’s School of Peace Studies painted a devastating portrait of thousands of mostly young women whom gangs trafficked for sex. “I didn’t expect the number to be this high myself,” said Ami Carpenter, a co-author on the study, “But I’m fully confident in our methods.”

The study has since been used by anti-trafficking groups, such as the Alabaster Jar Project and even the Church of Scientology of San Diego, to make broad, authoritative claims about trafficking in San Diego County. But by April 2016, the Department of Justice had pushed the researchers to revise it significantly; the number of trafficking victims was pared down from an estimated range of 8,830 to 11,773 victims to an estimated range of 3,417 to 8,108 victims. But even the revised-down figure presents its own problems, said Dr. Anthony Marcus, chair of the anthropology department at John Jay College of the City University of New York, who has also conducted DOJ-funded research into trafficking. “Any time the range for a number is that wide — 3,417 to 8,108, much more than 100%,” Marcus told The Appeal, “it raises questions about how well the research can actually answer its own questions.” These limitations did not prevent groups that had coalesced around the issue of trafficking in San Diego to run with the study’s findings of a vast, hidden “industry” worth $810 million per year.

Jamie Gates speaking at an event on human trafficking organized by the San Diego Union-Tribune. This is a map of phone calls to a trafficking hotline.

Like many of her peers in law enforcement who have focused on fighting trafficking with arrests and prosecutions meant to disrupt sex work, Stephan believes there’s no meaningful difference between sex work and trafficking. “Just from being on the ground doing this work for a long time, even those people that tell you they are choosing this life, they were recruited at an early age,” Stephan told the Voice of San Diego earlier this month. “So in my head, you know, how do you really become free if this is all you know when you don’t have [an] education or any other line of work to sustain yourself?”

This view, that women who sell sex are incapable of making their own choices, also extends to San Diego law enforcement’s view of women in the sex trade as trafficking victims. “Most victims will not identify as a victim until they encounter law enforcement between 7–10 times,” Matt Blumenthal, a sergeant with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and a supervisor at the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force (HTTF), wrote in a blog post for the anti-trafficking nonprofit Thorn. Until a “victim” accepted law enforcement intervention, Blumenthal continued, they would also be uncooperative with prosecutors.

Summer Stephan Trafficking Deck

Source document contributed to DocumentCloud by Matt Henry (In Justice Today).

Slides from a presentation Stephan delivered in June 2016.

These prosecutors include Summer Stephan’s office, also a member of the HTTF, whose investigations of suspected trafficking often result in crackdowns on sex work. In June 2016, Stephan touted an operation targeting an online message board featuring advertisements for sex work as a major success in combating trafficking. Yet no trafficking charges were filed. Similarly, the HTTF runs annual prostitution stings dubbed Operation Reclaim and Rebuild that Stephan described as a “wake up call for men who buy sex,” after a March 2018 sting resulted in 29 arrests of men allegedly attempting to buy sex. Stephan’s office said this operation targeted “the demand side of sex trafficking.”

Operation Reclaim & Rebuild News Release SD Version 1 30 18

Source document contributed to DocumentCloud by Melissa Gira Grant (In Justice Today).

Press release announcing the arrests of 29 men for allegedly buying sex

This “end demand” approach, supported by Stephan and groups in San Diego funded by Demand Abolition, is based on the belief that preventing men from buying sex in the first place is necessary in order to end human trafficking. This is why Stephan supported a program called the Cyber Patrol, first created by a Portland-area pastor that recruited volunteers — including current and former police officers — to create fake sex work ads, then inform the men who called for their services that sex workers are mostly trafficking victims. “Cyber Patrol, they are disrupting the demand,” Stephan toldthe San Diego Union-Tribune, “but actually at its core it’s providing accurate information about the damage and the harm that buying does.”

As for actual human trafficking, a category that also includes labor trafficking, prosecutions at Stephan’s office are down to 19 in total for the fiscal year ending in September 2017 from a high of 32 in 2013. As Cyber Patrol and Operation Reclaim and Rebuild demonstrate, what Stephan’s office has focused on instead is targeting men who attempt to buy sex, as well as lobbying for increased penalties for these men.

Stephan has touted her office’s support of new state laws that she says will help people who have been trafficked. The San Diego district attorney’s support of these laws is relatively new, however. In 2016, the office opposed SB 1322, which decriminalized prostitution for minors, joining with other prosecutors in the state, as well as SB 823, which would have vacated past criminal charges of those who were prosecuted while they were being trafficked. But since SB 823 went into effect, the San Diego public defender’s office and Free to Thrive, a local nonprofit that provides legal services to trafficking survivors, told The Appeal they have only been able to clear the records of six individuals.

In a recent interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Stephan acknowledged that her high-profile work on trafficking launched her into the top prosecutor spot once Dumanis announced her resignation. “Victims’ groups, a lot of the human trafficking work that I do, started to say, are you going to be the next DA,” she said. “We now are the gold standard for how you do sex crimes and human trafficking. I get called by other DA offices all the time to try to recreate it.” Prominent Stephan supporters, too, repeatedly tout her trafficking focus. On April 25, San Diego Convention Center Chair Gil Cabrera tweeted that Stephan “has lead [sic] the field” in trafficking.

But in the June 5 election, Stephan faces insurgent candidate Geneviéve Jones-Wright, a longtime public defender who is challenging Stephan’s record on trafficking, requesting cash bail for low-level offenses, advocating for rollbacks of recent criminal justice reforms, and highlighting Stephan’s failures in sexual assault cases. “My opponent’s failed leadership as head of the Sex Crimes Unit created the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in San Diego County,” Jones-Wright said in March.

In an interview with The Appeal, Jones-Wright was particularly critical of Stephan’s trafficking prosecutions. “I’ll just be very blunt here,” Jones-Wright said, “she’s able to harp on these things because this has been her brand.” Contrary to Stephan’s assertion that sex workers are victims of trafficking, Jones-Wright explained, “there is absolutely the reality of voluntary sex workers, and, to say anything other than that is to be misinformed. So a person who touts herself as a national expert, who sits on all of these commissions couldn’t be more wrong in the field of her expertise. That is dangerous. It’s dangerous for combating human trafficking, it’s dangerous for protecting victims, it is dangerous for actually helping people who are engaged in sex work help law enforcement get the quote-unquote ‘bad guys’ who are abusing people.”

Jones-Wright also blasted Stephan for supporting a new federal law that would make online platforms liable for prostitution-related content, meant to shut down classified ads site Backpage.com but in reality making any website a target. The law’s proponents said it will combat trafficking — Stephan hailed it as ushering in an era when men will no longer “feel the anonymity of just going online and ordering a person like you’re ordering pizza” — but it has already resultedin the closure of websites sex workers rely on for income and safety. Jones-Wright believes that the legislation will make it more difficult to “to actually investigate and know who these people [traffickers] are … I would prefer for them to be on Backpage and Craigslist because we need to know who they are, if they are selling our children.”

Stephan’s representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Appeal.

Promising tough action against trafficking has helped Stephan garner an image as a progressive leader, even as the “reforms” she supports perpetuate the carceral status quo of criminalizing sex work, while possibly making it more difficult to help the actual victims of trafficking. Even Stephan seems to acknowledge her office’s limits in combating trafficking. “We know we can’t prosecute ourselves out of it,” she said in a 2017 story on San Diego’s “slow but steady progress” in the trafficking fight. Still, she added, “[i]t has to be a war that everyone engages in.”

How Naming a Drug Operation for a Fallen Trooper Endangers His Alleged Killer’s Fair Trial

Cash, weapons, and drugs seized by Louisiana State Police in an operation named after the unit number of a slain trooper.
Louisiana State Police / Facebook

How Naming a Drug Operation for a Fallen Trooper Endangers His Alleged Killer’s Fair Trial


When Kevin Daigle was set to be tried in late April on first-degree murder charges for allegedly killing a Louisiana state trooper in August 2015, he faced the steepest of odds: Prosecutors in the case decided to seek the death penalty, and juries are prone to deliver death verdicts when the life of a law enforcement officer is taken.

But Daigle’s dilemma deepened in mid-April when the Louisiana State Police (LSP) arrested more than 180 people on drugs and weapons charges and named the operation “D-57” after the unit number of the slain trooper, Steven Vincent. Incredibly, the LSP said in a statement that “Trooper Vincent’s son requested we [would] ‘find a lot of drugs’ if we used his father’s LSP unit number as the operation title, and that’s exactly what resulted.” In photographs released to the media, the LSP displayed the drugs and weapons the agency allegedly seized in the operation, accompanied by a Louisiana license plate that read “D-57.”

The LSP’s arrests were not confined to the Southwest Louisiana parish — Calcasieu — where Vincent was murdered. Instead, the nearly 200 people taken into custody on drugs and weapons charges were from across Louisiana, meaning that news of the operation conducted in the murdered trooper’s name reached nearly every corner of the state.

Why does an anti-drug operation and its attendant publicity matter for Daigle? Because his defense team had already argued that the extraordinary attention surrounding the case — which included near-constant local media coverage and even articles in national publications like USA Today and theNew York Times — would prejudice the Calcasieu Parish jury pool. In 2016, Louisiana 14th Judicial Court judge Guy Bradberry agreed and decided that the jury should be selected from Bossier Parish, about 200 miles away, and then brought to Calcasieu to hear the guilt phase of the trial. Naming the statewide effort “Operation D-57,” then, compounded the problem of a fair and impartial jury for Daigle, who faces execution at the hands of the state of Louisiana.

Courts have recognized the outsized influence that the police can exert on a defendant’s right to a fair trial. Such troubling situations often arise when police make public pretrial statements about the case, pack a courtroom with officers in uniform during trial, or, as here, engage in a massive drug operation that reignites a community’s outrage over a police shooting. Such conduct can violate a defendant’s 14th Amendment due process right to a fair trial. It compromises the person’s right, in other words, to a jury that impartially decides his or her fate based only on the evidence, and not on emotions or preconceived impressions.

Unsurprisingly, on April 27, Daigle’s defense team filed yet another motion to seek a change of venue precisely because of “Operation D-57.” Soon afterward, the Louisiana Supreme Court stayed the trial indefinitely, but did so based on a separate defense motion. The defense sought to recuse Judge Bradberry because of numerous alleged conflicts of interest in the case, including the fact that he and Trooper Vincent’s wife are Facebook friends and that Bradberry or his wife may have “liked” a Facebook post offering prayers for the Vincent family.

Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal ultimately ruled that Bradberry will remain on the case and for now it’s unclear when — or where — Daigle’s trial will take place. But the extraordinary publicity surrounding a massive drugs and weapons operation conducted by the state police, all in the name of their fallen trooper, suggests that Daigle’s uphill battle for a fair capital trial might have taken a precipitous and perhaps fatal turn.

More in Explainers

New Federal Prison Policies May Put Books and Email on Ice

USP Victorville
US BOP

New Federal Prison Policies May Put Books and Email on Ice


The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is quietly rolling out a pair of new policies that could restrict access to books and communications for the system’s nearly 200,000 prisoners.

The first of the new policies bans all books from being sent into federal facilities from outside sources including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. These retailers are usually the only means by which prisoners can receive books because most facilities reject reading material sent from individuals or small bookstores due to regulations aimed at eliminating contraband.

Now, prisoners instead will have to submit a request to purchase books — a limit of five per order — through an ordering system in which they must pay exorbitant prices and don’t have the option to buy cheaper used paperbacks. In addition, prisoners must pay a 30 percent tax plus shipping cost, according to prisoners and memos distributed in at least three BOP facilities. Under the new protocol, a book purchased from Amazon for as little as $11.76, with shipping included, could cost more than $26.

The new books policy has yet to be implemented BOP-wide but it has been in effect in the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California, since October 11, 2017, according to Atwater officials. And it has been in place at the Victorville Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) since February 24, 2018, according to a BOP memo obtained by the CAN-DO Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for clemency for all nonviolent drug offenders. In the memo, warden David Shinn wrote that the change was a result of “attempts to introduce narcotics … unauthorized positive urinalysis; inmate on inmate assaults; and inmate on staff assaults.” Three prisoners incarcerated at FCI Victorville told The Appeal that the new policy has resulted in a massive price increase for books as well as months of wait time between orders.

“One friend of mine bought two $4.99 books and the price ended up being $42 total,” said one prisoner, who requested not to be named out of fear of retribution from prison officials. “Plus, the books take months to arrive.”

The warden of the Coleman Correctional Complex in Florida sent a similar memo to prisoner in March advising that the policy will go into effect in May.

“Effective Monday, May 14, 2018, books from a publisher, book club, bookstore, or friends and family will no longer be accepted through the mail,” reads the memo from warden R.C. Cheatham which was first obtained by the Families Against Mandatory Minimums organization (FAMM). “Books will be rejected by mailroom staff and returned to sender.”

The BOP’s new policy is likely to be harmful because books are a critical part of the rehabilitation process, allowing prisoners to learn and develop new skills. A 2013 RAND study found that prisoners who received education in prison had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. “Your books are everything,” Amy Povah, a formerly incarcerated person and CAN-DO founder, told The Appeal. “It’s what keeps you going.”

Clarence Remble, a prisoner who is serving a 36-year sentence at Victorville, told The Appeal that steep prices and lengthy wait times have meant that he and other prisoners have stopped ordering books altogether.

“The fox is not worth the chase so I and others no longer order books cause they cost too much,” he said.

When asked about the book policy at Coleman during a BOP house oversight hearing on April 17, BOP Director Mark Inch claimed he hadn’t seen the memo and then stumbled through an unintelligible explanation of it.

“The memo you’re looking at, I’ve not actually seen that memo but the work that we are doing on combating the introduction of contraband into our facilities addresses multiple ways of materials are brought into our facilities as we look and pilot different ways to (inaudible) contraband,” he said.

Inch argued that prisoners can access books through recreational and legal libraries. But CAN-DO’s Povah says that library selections are mostly limited to Harlequin romance novels and fiction by the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham.

BOP told FAMM it is planning to write a “new memo” due to the criticism it received after news of the Coleman memo broke in the Miami New Times in early April, according to FAMM’s president, Kevin Ring. But prisoners in both Coleman and Victorville say they haven’t heard anything about a change in — or reversal of — the memo.

BOP did not return requests for comment from The Appeal.

In the second new directive, BOP is placing new limits on prisoner communications that will greatly affect who they can talk to on the outside. Under this policy, no two prisoners are allowed to have the same person on their contact list in prison email system, known as CorrLinks, according to memos circulated circulated in Coleman, Victorville, and California’s DublinFederal Correctional Institution.

Victorville Memos

Source document contributed to DocumentCloud by Matt Henry (In Justice Today).

“An inmate’s contact list may not possess another inmate’s immediate family member, friend, or contact located on the inmate’s approved list,” reads the March 22 Dublin memo, adding it will make exceptions for “attorneys, clerks of the court, and other contacts approved on a case-by-case basis.”

The new CorrLinks policy is already in effect at Victorville and USP Atwater, and Povah said she has received five notices stating that she had been removed from prisoners’ contact lists. The policy is slated to go into effect in Dublin on April 23 and Coleman on May 14.

Advocates say that the rule will cut off prisoners from communicating with advocates, pen pals, family members, friends, and journalists who are in touch with multiple prisoners in one facility.

“This will prevent us from assisting prisoners or learning about the very abuses we are discussing now,” Povah said. “It’s as if they want to cut prisoners off from the outside world altogether.”

More in Podcasts