A three-judge appeals panel ruled Monday that a woman who smuggled a 9-year-old Salvadoran girl into the country as a "personal slave" could not be forced to pay liquidated damages for minimum wage violations in a criminal case.
Dora Alicia Valle pleaded no contest in 2015 to slavery and human trafficking of a minor and was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay more than $93,000 to the girl she had forced to work for her in a Pacoima restaurant.
Valle's attorneys sought to reduce the amount owed by roughly $38,000.
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The appeals panel found that liquidated damages amount to penalties under state labor laws, rather than restitution, and can only be imposed in a civil case.
"Under the plain language of Labor Code section 1194.2, trial courts may only award liquidated damages in enumerated civil wage-recovery actions. Because a criminal restitution hearing is not a civil action, we conclude liquidated damages may not be imposed in this case," Justice Luis A. Lavin wrote in his opinion for the Second District Court of Appeal.
Valle was ordered by the panel to pay a remaining $55,068.12 in restitution to the victim. That amount reflects back wages and interest.
According to a summary provided in the opinion, Valle arranged to pay $150 per month to the girl's mother during the last three months of her pregnancy and then to other women who raised the child. When the girl turned 9 years old, Valle paid a smuggler to bring her to America.
She paid the girl $30 a week plus tips for working in a restaurant Valle managed, but didn't own. The girl worked after school three days a week and all day Saturday and Sunday, but was allowed to keep just $5 to $10 a week, according to Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Paul Kim.
The young girl told the judge during trial that Valle said she owed $10,000 to repay the costs of being smuggled into the United States.
The prosecutor said at trial that the girl was "at best an indentured servant" but was "for all intents and purposes her (Valle's) personal slave" who was "trafficked by coyotes" into the United States and turned over to what was "supposed to be a surrogate mother" who was instead "a tyrant."
"She is completely remorseless," the prosecutor said of Valle, noting that the defendant told state prison counselors that she felt she was doing "God's work."
Valle offered her plea three days into her trial and her attorney urged the judge to consider probation, saying his client had spent the vast majority of her life "crime-free" and had otherwise been a productive member of society.
Valle's live-in boyfriend at the time, Estrada Melvin Sandoval, pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor count each of false imprisonment and battery. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail and was expected to be deported once he finished his term.