A Utah County lawmaker wants state and local authorities to be able to prosecute human trafficking and smuggling cases.
Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, has introduced a provision that creates state definitions and charges for the crimes, as well as giving victims an affirmative defense against criminal charges directly related to the trafficking.
Human trafficking, essentially a modern-day slave trade, is already a federal offense, and Herrod wants to enhance enforcement efforts by giving prosecutorial power to local and state law enforcement officers as well.
"Unfortunately, southern Utah is a trafficking hot spot, and this is saying don't come to Utah," Herrod said.
Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said she couldn't comment on pending state legislation. The office is part of a statewide human trafficking task force, which is targeting the issue. While there have been no charges that have risen to the level of a federal prosecution yet, "we have come very close," Rydalch said.
The bill, HB339, defines human smuggling as knowingly transporting at least one person who is not "lawfully in this state." Human trafficking is defined as forced labor or sexual exploitation obtained through the use of force, fraud or coercion. Both would be second-degree felonies when done for financial or material gain. The crimes would be aggravated, first-degree felonies if they resulted in death, serious bodily injury, rape or other sexual assault, if the victim is under 18 or held for more than 180 days.
The bill doesn't include protection for victims, which victim advocates and prosecutors have called key to investigating.
Susan Ritter, a task force member and executive director of the Utah Health and Human Rights Project, says she welcomes any state effort that brings attention to the issue.
"Not putting in protection for victims means there will be a number of cases in which we won't be able to get victims to cooperate," she said. "Part of what has made the federal law effective is it allows victims protection if they come forward. ... You are talking about some of the most vulnerable, frightened" victims.
Herrod said he chose to exclude such protections because it would be too easy to fraudulently claim human trafficking in an attempt at immunity.
"We didn't want to give somebody that was just pulled over at a traffic stop a defense," he said, adding, "I didn't want to burden the Utah taxpayers."
Based on a preliminary look at the bill, Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill, a task force member, said it's a step in the right direction, though it may need clarification to become workable. He pointed particularly to the victim immunity clause as potentially being over-broad."There are some (victims) that are co-conspirators, some are more involved than others," Gill said. "We don't want to create a blanket immunity. Prosecutors already have discretion."
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