Written by AJ Crow and Edited by Emilee Kain. Updated as of July 2021.
“I just want my life back. It’s been 13 years and it’s enough,” said Britney Spears in a twenty-four-minute statement she gave to a Los Angeles court on June 23 (Aswad). Medicated, institutionalized, and forced to work against her will, Britney Spears is publicly speaking out against her conservatorship for the first time since its inception in 2008 (Aswad).
Spears’s testimony has sparked public outrage with the hashtag “free britney” trending on nearly every social media platform; furthermore, Britney’s testimony has posed serious questions of whether charges of human trafficking, among other things, should be brought against her conservators.
First and foremost, it is essential to understand what actually rises to the standard of human trafficking set forth by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 as well as the Trafficking Protocol of the UNODC.
According to the TVPA, labor trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery (Victims). The federal statute for charging a person or persons with labor trafficking is as follows:
Whoever knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person—
(1) by threats of serious harm to, or physical restraint against, that person or another person;
(2) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if the person did not perform such labor or services, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint; or
(3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or the legal process, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. If death results from the violation of this section, or if the violation includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or the attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill, the defendant shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for any term of years or life, or both (Victims).
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also set forth requirements regarding the prosecution of human trafficking cases. According to the UNODC, trafficking in persons has three constituent elements and in order to prosecute a case of human trafficking, the respective case must meet these requirements. In criminal law terms, these three constituent elements can be identified as the actus reus—the material or physical element(s)—and the mens rea—the mental element.
As defined in the UNODC Trafficking Protocol, the requirement of actus reus is split into two parts:
Actus reus requirement (1): The offense must include any one of the following:
Receiving a person
Actus reus requirement (2): It must also contain at least one of the following means:
Use of force
Threat of force
Abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability
Giving or receiving of benefits (UN).
The mens rea requirement is a legal concept that reflects the state of mind of the accused person. Even when sufficient actus reus is present, only defendants with a sufficient “guilty mind” can be found liable for a criminal offense. The mens rea required in a trafficking in persons case is that the accused person committed the material act(s) with the intention that the victim be “exploited”. The human trafficking protocol outlined in the TVPA does not explicitly define “exploitation” but gives a non-exhaustive list of forms of exploitation such as prostitution, forced labor, slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs (Victims).
To sum up, when identifying human trafficking cases, investigators and prosecutors must determine whether or not three necessary elements: action (actus reus), means of force (actus reus), and purpose (mens rea) are present. When sufficient actus reus and mens rea are present, a criminal charge can be pressed, and a conviction is probable. Alicia Peters, an associate professor of anthropology at University of New England, says that in Britney Spears’s case, “the question comes down to, what does that force or coercion look like and does it meet the legal standard? That would be key, and then there's that purpose. The purpose is getting her to perform, but who is benefiting from her labor and where is that money going?” (Orecchio-Egresitz). Put simply, in order to press human trafficking charges against Spears’s conservators, a team of prosecutors and investigators would need to be able to show that:
1. The level of force/coercion used on Spears met the legal standard and,
2. that her conservators benefited from her labor.
Now, you may be wondering how the prosecution will be able to show the aforementioned. When it comes to crimes against persons, victim and witness testimonies are crucial tools for the prosecution, especially in cases where physical evidence is lacking or even totally unavailable, meaning that Britney Spears’s own testimony and the testimony of those who have witnessed Spear's experiences will hold a lot of weight. What Spears herself can testify to regarding the types/levels of force/coercion used against her will be a key factor for the prosecution to consider before making a decision on whether they will be advancing her case. If Spears’s testimony is backed up by other witnesses such as eyewitnesses (friends, family, co-workers, etc.), expert witnesses (doctors and other professionals), and character witnesses, the prosecution will be able to build a much stronger case. As for any physical evidence of labor trafficking, the financial records of both Britney Spears and her conservators are of great importance. If the prosecution can show Spears’s conservators are profiting from her exploitation, Spear’s case will be infinitely stronger. In short, Spears’s testimony alongside witness testimonies, combined with any financial evidence, will be an integral part of the prosecution's case.
Despite all this, the prosecution will encounter one monumental challenge throughout the course of their endeavors: Britney Spears is not your typical trafficking victim. In fact, the most prevalent cases of human trafficking typically involve victims with low socio-economic status. In the majority of human trafficking cases, the trafficker will use the victim's financial, housing, and/or immigration status as a way to maintain control. However, Spears’s situation is quite unique in this manner; what Spears does describe, though, is a bit of a smoking gun: under her conservatorship, she is not allowed to access her own money as she desires (Aswad). Peters says that “you can correlate that to somebody whose passport is being held or their wages are being withheld to pay for their housing or their meal — like you would see in a more traditional kind of forced labor situation.” (Orecchio-Egresitz).
To conclude, I am not a prosecutor or even a lawyer, but it doesn’t take a J.D. to see that what the state of California has allowed Britney Spears to endure for the past 13 years is nothing short of human trafficking. If the name attached to this case was anything other than “Britney Spears” it would without a doubt be an urgent human trafficking issue and should be treated as such.
Aswad, Jem. “Read Britney Spears' Full Statement Against Conservatorship: 'I Am
Traumatized'.” Variety, Variety, 24 June 2021, variety.com/2021/music/news/britney-spears-full-statement-conservatorship-1235003940/.
Orecchio-Egresitz, Haven. “Britney Spears' Conservatorship Raises Questions about
Forced Labor, Which Experts Say Doesn't Get Enough Attention in the US.” Insider, Insider, 25 June 2021, www.insider.com/britney-spears-conservatorship-raises-questions-forced-labor-2021-6.
UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Anti-Human Trafficking Manual for Criminal
Justice Practitioners. New York, N.Y.: US, August 2009. PDF, https://www.unodc.org/documents/human-trafficking/TIP_module1_Ebook.pdf
Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O.,
2000. PDF, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-106publ386/pdf/PLAW-106publ386.pdf