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Measure to strengthen human trafficking laws goes to the governor

Senior Editor Top Stories
Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr.

Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr.

Advocates are celebrating the passage of legislation designed to strengthen human trafficking laws, and bolster recovery programs.

The Senate voted 40-0 on April 27 to approve CS/CS/CS SB 1826 by Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens. Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, sponsored the companion, HB 525. It goes next to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Human trafficking is a scourge across greater Florida,” Toledo said.

In a statement, Attorney General Ashley Moody said her top priority was “holding accountable those involved in this horrible enterprise.”

“SB 1826 will allow us to better serve victims of human trafficking in our courts and strengthens our ability to bring traffickers to justice through our legal system,” Moody said.

The measure would, among other things, encourage state attorneys to adopt a pro-prosecution policy, even when victims refuse to cooperate. It would create a training program for advocates and make their communications with victims “privileged” under certain circumstances.

The measure would expand the definition of human trafficking to include “purchasing, patronizing,” or “procuring,” a change, advocates say, that could include the customers of sex trafficking victims. Another provision would eliminate filing fees associated with the expungement of a victim’s criminal history and allow them to pursue expungement in multiple jurisdictions. Brent Woody, a Tarpon Springs attorney and victim advocate who worked with the sponsors, said the latter provisions would benefit many of the survivors he represents pro bono through his not-for-profit Justice Restoration Center.

Human trafficking survivors can have records related to everything from prostitution to shoplifting, crimes committed at the direction of their traffickers, Woody said.

Florida law recognizes the dilemma and permits victims to expunge their records on the theory that there was a “substantive defect in the underlying criminal proceeding.”

But victims are barred from filing for expungement in more than one jurisdiction, and lifting that ban will make a difference, Woody said.

One client with convictions in Illinois, Nevada, and Florida has waited years for the expungement process to work its way through the system, one jurisdiction at a time, Woody said.

Until their records are cleared, victims face substantial barriers to employment, housing, and education, advocates say.

When she presented the bill on the House floor, Toledo thanked Woody, Moody, and her co-sponsor, Diaz. Both lawmakers serve on the 15-member Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, which Moody chairs.

Toledo also praised survivors who have gone public with their stories, including one who described being abused by a neighbor when she was 5, and later sexually trafficked by her mother.

“Your voices have been heard, we are grateful for your strength and courage in sharing your stories,” Toledo said.

Contrary to the Hollywood stereotype, most human trafficking victims aren’t victims of international smuggling rings, Toledo said. Many are neighborhood adolescents enticed by a perpetrator’s online promises of romance, excitement, or protection.

“Often it can be a child that has been in-and-out of foster care,” she said. “We can help victims regain normalcy in life. This bill confirms that they are not criminals.”

According to a Senate analysis, Florida ranks third in the nation in terms of reported human trafficking cases. The analysis cites 767 reports of human trafficking cases in 2018 — 149 of them involving minors.

“In November 2018, an investigation in Polk County lead to the arrest of 103 people for charges including prostitution and human trafficking,” the analysis states. “Similarly, in January 2019, a two-month investigation lead to the arrest of a 36-year-old male in Tallahassee on prostitution and sex trafficking charges involving a 14-year-old girl. At the time of his arrest, the male was already facing charges for sex trafficking a child in 2014.”

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