Imperative Human Trafficking Bill Proposes Enhanced Penalties for Sex Buyers

January 28, 2022 Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes

On January 10, HB 1439, a bill that aims to enhance penalties for sex traffickers and increase protections for victims, was filed by Republican State Representative Jackie Toledo. The bill would be enacted by the Legislature of the State of Florida as the “Human Trafficking Reduction Act”. The act relates to prostitution, lewdness, human trafficking, and public lodging and includes the following changes to current Florida law:

  • Prohibits an operator of a public lodging establishment or vacation rental from offering an hourly rate for accommodation
  • Requires a guest of a public lodging establishment or vacation rental to provide positive proof of identification to the operator at the time of occupancy
  • Increases penalties for soliciting or procuring another person to commit prostitution or other specified offenses or purchasing services of a person engaged in prostitution
  • Provides that human trafficking expunction of criminal history records does not apply to specified offenses
  • Removes the requirement for a specific evidentiary standard when determining human trafficking victim status in absence of official documentation
  • Creates a Statewide Data Repository for Anonymous Human Trafficking

So, what does any of this mean? Victims of sex trafficking are often found in hotels, motels, and vacation rentals that can be rented by the hour. Therefore, prohibiting operators of such establishments from offering by-the-hour accommodations would add a real hurdle for both traffickers and buyers. In addition, requiring guests to provide personal identification would force operators of rental facilities to be more aware of who was staying in their establishment and more would make them likely to identify that the individual is a victim of sex trafficking.

As it stands, first-time sex buying in the state of Florida is punished as a second-degree misdemeanor under Section 796.07 of the Florida Statutes. This newly proposed bill would raise the penalty to a third-degree felony. Under current law, an individual would have to be charged with a second solicitation violation to commit a third-degree felony. Florida’s newly proposed bill not only cracks down on first-time sex buying to deter individuals from further solicitation, but it also helps get the ball rolling for other states to consider similar legislation, as nearly every state currently punishes first-time sex buying as a misdemeanor.

Furthermore, the bill offers trafficking survivors the ability to make petitions to expunge the criminal records they attained during their victimization and ensure those petitions remain confidential. Brent Woody, attorney and executive director of the Justice Restoration Center, a non-profit that represents human trafficking survivors from around the world expunging Florida criminal records obtained when they were a victim of human trafficking, speaks on how imperative this legislation is, stating:

“Petitions to expunge contain highly sensitive information, such as traffickers and other victims’ names, locations of safe houses, and personal, sensitive information about sexual abuse. Failure to keep that information confidential can even place a survivor at risk, at the retaliation of a trafficker, and could subject a survivor to embarrassment and harassment. It can also compromise the efforts of law enforcement in investigating traffickers.”

Section 943.0583(5) of the Florida Statutes states that official documentation of the victim’s status creates a presumption that his or her participation in the offense on their record was a result of having been a victim of human trafficking but is not required for granting a petition for expunction, however, if there is no official documentation a determination must be made by a showing of clear and convincing evidence.  HB 1439 would remove this high evidentiary standard altogether and allow victims to be recognized without being required to meet such a high burden.

Importantly, the Human Trafficking Reduction Act calls for establishing a statewide human trafficking data repository at the University of South Florida to accomplish the following goals which are enumerated in the act:

  1. Collect and analyze anonymous human trafficking data to better understand the magnitude and trends in human trafficking in the state over time.
    2. Help evaluate the effectiveness of various state-funded initiatives to combat human trafficking to determine the impact of such initiatives and to use evidence-based decision-making in the determination of state investments in such initiatives.
    3. Inform statewide efforts among law enforcement, state agencies, and other entities to combat human trafficking and apprehend and prosecute those persons responsible for human trafficking.
    4. Better serve victims of human trafficking through evidence-based interventions that have proven effective.

According to the Florida Alliance to End Human Trafficking, Florida ranks third in the United States in human trafficking cases reported. Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw of the Tampa Police Department demonstrated how crucial this proposed legislation is, stating:

“Human trafficking continues to burgeon, and throughout the world, it has become the second most profitable form of organized crime. An effective database is critical in understanding and dissecting the root causes to mitigate this horrific crime. Having the enhanced ability to analyze human trafficking data and those crimes intersecting with human trafficking will bring our mitigation efforts to the next level. Housing this database in our backyard at USF’s TIP Lab will significantly improve our mitigation efforts and our ability to work proactively with our researchers, local, state, federal and private partners.”

The bill will be heard at its first committee stop on January 25th. The bill has the potential to not only make a sweeping change in the fight against human trafficking but help ensure that through expungement, the futures of trafficking survivors are not forever affected by their victimization.

Written by Sarah Kamide

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