Although few argue that human trafficking shouldn’t be punished, one Maryland legislator has found out not everyone agrees on the appropriate penalty.
For the past three years, Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-Dist. 15) of Rockville has introduced some version of a bill that would allow police to seize money and property from convicted human traffickers — a bill that never has been introduced for a vote by the House Judiciary Committee, on which Dumais is the vice-chairwoman. Although the bill was popular among lawmakers in the 2011 session — 41 delegates sponsored it that year — a handful of delegates, led by Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., likely will keep the current bill from a vote this year.
“At least according to the criminal defense attorneys on the committee, it doesn't always work perfectly,” Dumais said of asset forfeiture laws. “... If you're seizing all the property in the room, and it's not just cash, how do you know the house was purchased using ill-gotten gains? … There is a process to determine that, but again, that is the concern.”
In spite of the bill’s support among other lawmakers, Vallario (D-Dist. 27A) of Upper Marlboro, as the committee chair, can effectively block passage by simply refusing to introduce the legislation, Dumais said.
“In fairness to Del. Vallario, he's the chairman of the committee and those kinds of decisions are within his prerogative,” Dumais said.
Vallario did not return multiple calls for comment, but other committee members with criminal defense backgrounds, including Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons (D-Dist. 17) of Rockville, are hesitant to approve asset forfeiture laws in general, not just for human trafficking cases.
Simmons, who introduced a successful bill last session allowing police to use wire-tapping technology in human trafficking investigations, has said he would rather look at asset forfeiture as a general issue rather than approving such laws for specific crimes.
Maryland criminal law currently allows asset forfeiture to be considered only in drug and gambling-related cases.
The seizure of assets is not the only bill related to human trafficking being considered by state lawmakers this session. Six bills dealing with human trafficking laws were introduced this year, said Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force volunteer Nancy Winston, a former board member of Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking nonprofit organization.
“We need more laws in place to evaluate how big the problem is here,” Winston said at a Feb. 15 advocacy event in Annapolis.
The bills would: Expand the definition of child abuse to include human trafficking; allow victims of human trafficking to claim compensation as crime victims; change the abduction of a child younger than 16 from a misdemeanor to felony; and bar people accused of sex with a minor from claiming they did not know the victim was under age as a legal defense, Winston said.
A sixth bill, introduced by Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring, would require owners of bus stations and truck stops in the state to post signs with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline number.
“Even once law enforcement has recommendations, it’s hard to educate all the members of the Maryland General Assembly about why this is needed on top of laws we already have,” Hucker said. “The mill grinds slowly here; unfortunately … this really has expanded greatly in just the last few years.”
As more and more laws pass allowing police to address human trafficking as a separate crime from prostitution, arrests for human trafficking offenses are on the rise, even as the number of victims remains relatively stable, Penrod said.
Last year, the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to serving victims of prostitution and human trafficking served 82 victims in 2011, about the same as they served in 2010, said Carolina De Los Rios, director of Polaris’ client services.
“But we get a lot of our referrals from law enforcement officers so sometimes it varies from year-to-year depending on what the goals of the particular police agencies are that year,” De Los Rios said of the nonprofit’s caseload.
So although groups such as the human trafficking task force call for new laws to address the issue of sex trafficking and state lawmakers come to grips with the concept of human trafficking as a crime, the police officers who enforce the laws often are left on the sidelines, said Sgt. Kenneth Penrod of the Montgomery County Vice and Intelligence Unit.
“As human trafficking comes more to the forefront in Maryland, how long is it going to take to give us the tools we need to address the crime? Is it going to take some tragedy?” Penrod said. “But we’re going to keep doing these cases anyway; whether there’s asset forfeiture or not, whether it’s expensive or not, we’re going to do them.”