On September 13, 2023, the Erie District Attorney’s office, withdrew criminal charges against Shavlis. S. Johnson, 27, for two counts of the following charges; Kidnapping to Facilitate A Felony, Trafficking in Individuals – Recruit/entice/solicit/etc., Trafficking in Individuals – Financial Benefit, Involuntary Servitude – Serious Harm, Involuntary Servitude – Taking/Retaining Physical Property, and Prom Pros-Encourage Prostitution.
Pennsylvania State Police were called to a Dollar General Store on July 28, 2023 by a woman who allegedly fled from Johnson. Upon arrival, the woman told police that Johnson held her and another woman against their will and forced them both into prostitution. The woman told police that she had originally met Johnson through a Facebook dating application and after about a week of communications, she met Johnson in Tennessee, as Johnson was from Memphis. The two then traveled to Arkansas to pick up another woman. Then, Johnson allegedly drove to various states and forced the two women into prostitution. All these allegations were corroborated by the other woman.
The woman told the police Johnson allegedly advertised their services on various websites, and on July 27, 2023 and July 28, 2023, she was forced to have sex with six different individuals. She also claimed she was forced to give the $1200 received from the sex buyers to Johnson. Moreover, the woman alleged that Johnson physically harmed her when she refused to comply with him, took her driver’s license, and broke her phone to inhibit her from seeking help. When Johnson was interviewed by police, Johnson purportedly stated that he merely assisted the women in engaging in prostitution, knew how much the women were charging, and took half the proceeds. However, the woman maintained that this was false and everything was against her will.
Johnson was initially arrested on July 28, 2023 and was held at Erie County Prison on a $400,000 bail. However, the charges were withdrawn on August 31, 2023, after the victim failed to appear at the preliminary hearing. Subsequently, the Commonwealth refiled the charges and his bail was set at $100,000. At the preliminary hearing on September 13, 2023, the charges were again withdrawn after the victims failed to appear. Johnson has since been released from custody.
While the reasons the victim failed to appear in this case remain unclear, human trafficking victims often suffer immense amounts of trauma whether that is emotional, mental distress, physical, and/or psychological. Trauma endured by victims of sexual exploitation are long-term and may affect their daily lives, behaviors, relationships, and mental health. Often engaging with the legal system can retraumatize and challenge the victims of human trafficking as it brings up painful memories.
The CSE Institute encourages all members of law enforcement, lawyers, and judges to engage in trauma informed practices when dealing with cases involving human trafficking. Today, trauma informed care is defined as a strengths-based service delivery approach grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma on individuals. It emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for providers and survivors, while also creating opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. A trauma-informed care approach is built on five core values: (1) physical and emotional safety; (2) trustworthiness which relates to the clarity of expectations, providing consistent service delivery, and maintaining boundaries; (3) choice; (4) collaboration; and (5) empowerment. The most important value of those five is safety because, without a sense of safety, a survivor will not progress and the anxiety and stress that feeling unsafe will create will add new trauma, amplify old trauma, and impact their behavior. We believe that by taking a trauma-informed approach, members of the justice system can best serve survivors, ensuring that the legal process is empowering for them.
The CSE Institute will continue to provide updates on this matter.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.