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Prosecuting Human Trafficking In Florida

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In part two of our series on the local fight against human trafficking, Dave Dunwoody looks at getting such cases into the legal system.

In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed a bill making human trafficking a first-degree felony carrying a maximum 15-year prison sentence upon conviction.

“My statewide prosecutors now have statewide jurisdiction to join with the federal authorities, with the state attorneys to take on these cases,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi at that time. “We’ve got to make Florida, and we are making Florida, a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking.”

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Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In 2016, the National Human Trafficking Hotline fielded 550 case calls from Florida, up from 412 cases in 2015. Since 2007, the hotline has received more than 2,300 reports from Florida according to Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors and fights human trafficking.

“Many of these [victims] are 13- and 14-year-olds; some are illegal aliens that come here for refuge and they’re being trafficked,” Bondi said. “And they’re scared to report it, they have nowhere to go. A lot of them are runaways; kids that have been bounced from foster home to foster home. And do you know where a lot of them want to go? Florida.”

“[Human trafficking] is a very complex type of case for several reasons; one of the reasons is that the statute itself is very broad,” said Bill Eddins, State Attorney for Florida’s 1st Judicial Circuit.

The human trafficking laws are virtually identical on both the federal and state levels.

“Transporting, soliciting, recruiting, providing, enticing, maintaining, or obtaining someone else to do that,” said Eddins. “It covers several types of victims; people in the service industries, it also covers people involved in the sexual exploitation of minors.”

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Bill Eddins, State Attorney for Florida's 1st Judicial Circuit.

Trafficking in human beings is, by nature, very secretive. Eddins says the type of victim is often somebody who rarely stays in one place, and is among the poorest and most vulnerable. And victims are generally unreliable witnesses.

“It’s hard for them, in many instances, to stand up to the defendants,” said Eddins. “In addition, to that in the services industry, you have a situation where the people come over for the summer to work in hotels, restaurants or other service-type industry; then they go back overseas.”

Another potentially sticky part of prosecuting such cases is determining jurisdiction, among multiple agencies and state judicial circuits. At that point, under the 2013 law, prosecution falls to the attorney general’s statewide prosecutor.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting project, Florida reported 105 investigations into human-trafficking offenses in 2016, but zero human trafficking arrests. Eddins says there are a number of problems in prosecuting these cases, including witnesses and voluminous facts.

“I will say that there’s more focus on human trafficking now, and increased training available for both prosecutors and for law enforcement officers,” said Eddins. “So hopefully, the human trafficking problem can be controlled better as we move into the future.”

Another obstacle that must be overcome is if the case involves children as victims or witnesses. Eddins points to the child advocates in the circuit’s four counties – Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton – which improves their ability to make good witnesses.

“Those centers are decorated in a kid-friendly manner,” Eddins said. “That’s where the child has to go to give a statement, for counseling, trial preparation. And that has been very helpful in in developing a stronger prosecution system.”

Suspected human trafficking can be reported to the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE; the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or to your local law enforcement agency.