Operation Traffic Stop – Human Trafficking in Florida

April 1, 2023 Criminal Defense

A recent undercover operation by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office resulted in over 200 arrests for an alleged human trafficking scheme. This page will provide the details from the operation, along with information on human trafficking charges in Florida, and the newly proposed bills which would change how victims of human trafficking are treated during criminal proceedings.

Polk County’s Undercover Investigation

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office held a seven-day undercover operation to target and apprehend those suspected to be involved in a human trafficking scheme. The operation began on February 6th, 2023, and was assisted by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, Auburndale PD, Winter Haven PD, Haines City PD, Lake Wales PD, Lakeland PD, Davenport PD, Bartow PD, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

According to the report, the multiagency operation ended with the arrest of over 200 individuals who were allegedly engaging in human trafficking. The officers involved were in search of “the victims of human trafficking, those that are forced to participate, those that are made to participate, [and] those that are treated inhumanely.”

Detectives screened those who had traveled to provide sex work services to determine if they had been exploited or trafficked. Those who were screened were offered services by social service organizations such as One More Child, Heartland for Children, My Name My Voice, and the Children’s Home Society Advocacy Center.

After six days of the undercover investigation, 111 sex workers were arrested. Out of those, 24 of them are suspected to be possible victims of human trafficking. There were 89 suspects who were arrested for their solicitation of sex work, and for traveling to the location disclosed by undercover detectives under the impression of paying for sex. There were another 13 people arrested, with 10 of them either “deriving proceeds from prostitution or aiding or abetting prostitutes,” according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The following is a statement by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd:

“Not only did we arrest more suspects during this single operation than we have ever arrested before, we identified 24 human trafficking victims—the highest number of victims we’ve ever rescued during one of these investigations. The valuable relationships that we have with the social services organizations who join us in these operations make it possible for these women to get help and be emancipated from this way of life.”

The following is a list of additional details from Operation Traffic Stop:

  • The undercover operation led to 68 felony and 308 misdemeanor charges;
  • Out of those arrested, 14 of them were suspected of being in the country illegally, with six of the 14 identified as human trafficking victims;
  • Several of those arrested had criminal histories including kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault, and other sex offenses;
  • Two of the suspects brought firearms to the undercover location disclosed by the detectives;
  • The oldest person arrested in the operation was 68, and the youngest person was 19;
  • During the operation, detectives seized fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana from the arrested suspects; and
  • Five of the suspects had been arrested in a previous undercover operation “Operation Fall Haul II” in September 2022.

To watch the full news conference from Polk County’s Sheriff’s Office, click here.

Human Trafficking Charges in Florida

Human trafficking is viewed as a form of modern-day slavery by both State and Federal legislation. In Florida, a person can face serious consequences for attempting to engage in human trafficking.

The Department of Justice defines human trafficking as the exploitation of a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines human trafficking in two forms:

  • Sex trafficking – The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not reached 18-years-old;
  • Forced labor – The form of recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining a person for the labor of services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Florida Statute Section 787.06 defines the offense of human trafficking as when any person knowingly engages or attempts to engage in human trafficking, or benefits financially from any venture which subjects another person to human trafficking. The state of Florida charges human trafficking as a first-degree felony. The penalties for a first-degree felony include up to a $10,000 fine and up to 30 years of imprisonment.

In certain scenarios, a person can instead face a life felony for human trafficking. This is for any of the following offenses:

  • The victim of sex trafficking is under the age of 18;
  • The victim of sex trafficking is considered mentally defective or mentally incapacitated;
  • The parent, legal guardian, or other person in custody of a minor has sold or otherwise transferred custody or control of the minor for the purpose of being subjected to human trafficking.

The penalties for a life felony in Florida include up to a $15,000 fine, life in prison without parole, or probation for the remainder of the defendant’s life.

In addition, the degree of a human trafficking offense will be reclassified one degree in severity if the victim suffers great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement to another person during the commission of human trafficking. For instance, a first-degree felony will be reclassified as a life felony.

SB 1208 & Human Trafficking Victims

There are currently two bills making their way through Florida Legislation that could change the landscape for human trafficking victims. Senate Bill 1208 is titled “Depositions of Witnesses in Criminal Proceedings” and would prohibit the deposition of certain witnesses, including the victims of human trafficking.

Under SB 1208 and its companion bill HB 1037, the law would require a motion stating a deposition is necessary from the human trafficking victim. The court would have to authorize the deposition, only if there is proof that it is the only reasonable means to obtain evidence and that “the probative value of the testimony outweighs the potential harm to the person being deposed.”

When deciding whether or not to file the motion for a deposition, the filing party must first consider the deciding factors. This includes whether the victim and/or witness will face additional psychological harm. The reason for the proposed bill is to protect the victims of human trafficking from reliving traumatic experiences during deposition, if it is not necessary for prosecution.

“Trafficking victims have already gone through so much and they shouldn’t have to needlessly relive those events during court proceedings,” said Sen. Danny Burgess, one of the Senators who filed the bill.

Attorney General Ashley Moody has stated that she works “every day to stop human trafficking in our state, and this session I am advocating for legislation that will further protect victims, as well as help our law enforcement bring traffickers to justice.”

To find out more about the proposed bill to prohibit depositions, read our page here.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Human trafficking is an extremely serious offense, as it is considered a form of slavery. A person who is accused of human trafficking can face life changing consequences. Due to the nature of the offense, it is not uncommon for a person to be prosecuted by both State and Federal law. If you or someone you know has been arrested for human trafficking, finding a Criminal defense lawyer is your top priority.

Don Pumphrey and the attorneys at Pumphrey Law Firm have years of experience representing those in Florida who have been accused of a criminal offense. Our team understands how stressful it can be to navigate the legal world, and we hope to alleviate that stress to the best of our ability. We will work to build a strong defense for your case and earn back your freedom. To receive a free consultation, contact us today at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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