Monday, 11 March 2019 12:44

Anti-trafficking legislation would offer post-conviction relief to survivors

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RALEIGH — This isn’t "Taken."

Unlike the portrayals popularized by Liam Neeson’s 2008 film thriller, human trafficking victims are rarely snatched during vacation getaways or from coffee shops, and they are rarely sympathetic characters with squeaky clean backgrounds, Libby Coles, chairwoman of the North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission, told Carolina Journal.

This year, Coles and the trafficking commission have introduced statewide legislation that, among many other things, would provide post-conviction relief for survivors who are charged with minor crimes while being trafficked.

Often, victims of sex and labor trafficking come from criminal backgrounds — or are coerced into crime by their traffickers. Physical and psychological trauma can lead to acts of prostitution, drug sales or drug use, theft, gang activity, resisting arrest, and much more.

The consequences are crippling, Coles said, and make it tough for survivors to get jobs, housing, licenses, and in some cases, immigration relief.

House Bill 198, “Human Trafficking Commission Recommendations,” would expunge lesser offenses from victims’ records. Class A through G felonies, which span violent crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and robbery, wouldn’t be erased. The bill’s primary sponsors are Reps. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover; Sarah Stevens, R-Wilkes; Steve Jarvis, R-Davidson; and Jerry Carter, R-Rockingham.

The only offense that can be expunged under current state law is prostitution, said Ryan Boyce, senior counsel for policy at the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, who’s advising the human trafficking commission.

The law must be expanded, he said, since trafficking rings weave a wide and sticky criminal web.

“Most of these operations are not as simple as one trafficker and one or two victims that he peddles around. Usually, it’s multilayered and some of the victims may actually be kind of a hybrid victim-trafficker themselves.”

Last year, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 162, the Human Trafficking Restorative Justice Act. Among other things, it expanded the definition of “victim” to include anyone subjected to human trafficking, and created an affirmative defense to trafficking offenses committed by victims “as a direct result of coercion or deception.”

H.B. 198 builds on that, Boyce said, adding to the list of offenses that can be expunged, and giving immediate relief to those who qualify. Victims will face no waiting period, and pay no filing fees.

The law is broad enough to help victims, but narrow enough to ensure justice is served, Boyce said. Under the legislation, courts would have discretion to weigh evidence, and trafficking survivors would have to prove their victim status in conjunction with their criminal records.

Victims who believe their trafficker is a boyfriend, spouse, or parent, rarely self-identify as a trafficking victim in court and often appear uncooperative — or even hostile, Coles said. Those people, though not consistent with the Hollywood portrayals, still deserve the chance to free themselves.

“[A criminal record] affects your ability to meet your basic needs, and the basic needs of your family,” she said. “And so for a survivor who’s experienced potentially multiple complex traumas … many of these collateral consequences, I think, could be insurmountable.”

H.B. 198 also would:

  • Criminalize the “promotion or sale of sex tourism services,” which, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, is “travel planned specifically for the purpose of sex, generally to a country where prostitution is legal.”
  • Criminalize “buyer conduct in instances of sexual servitude,” for “johns” who subject, maintain, or obtain another person for the purpose of sexual servitude.
  • Provide a civil cause of action for human trafficking victims, including a provision to “assess the defendant the reasonable costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees,” of the plaintiff.
  • Fund the N.C. Human Trafficking Commission with $250,000 for operational expenses.

Companion legislation, Senate Bill 200, has also been introduced. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to hear H.B. 198 this week.

According to statistics provided by Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Hotline, North Carolina ranked as the eighth worst states for human trafficking in 2017, with a reported 221 cases. The state dropped to the 11th spot last year, with roughly 126 cases reported to Polaris. The ranking provides little insight into the state’s actual number of trafficking cases, since hotline data is based solely on number of calls emails, and web forms, and is representative only of how many people are knowledgeable of the hotline.