After years of trying to curb human trafficking through harsher penalties for criminals and treatment programs for victims, lawmakers are now looking to the civil courts.
A bill filed last week would allow victims of human trafficking to sue for civil damages both traffickers and advertisers, including websites like Backpage.com. Human trafficking refers to forced prostitution, often involving children under 18. Traffickers sometimes advertise those services online through third-party websites.
Senate Bill 94 is part of a trio of human trafficking bills that were submitted on the first day of filing. The others, SB 92 and SB 93, would continue funding for the Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force under the Texas attorney general’s office for another two years and create a diversion and treatment program for juveniles involved in prostitution.
But SB 94 faces the biggest potential uphill battle. It would allow victims of trafficking to file civil action against and seek compensation from both the trafficking business and the publisher “of an advertisement that led to their victimization.” The measure would make liable any website that fails to stop advertisements posted by trafficking businesses.
Lawmakers and advocates expect the bill to face opposition during the upcoming legislative session from the websites and others who see it as a violation of the First Amendment.
“The thing they usually do is hire lobbyists to kill the bill,” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who co-sponsored the legislation with state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. “But Rep. Thompson and I are very strong that somebody should not profit off of someone else's misery.”
“There is a fine line on First Amendment rights and the promotion of criminal activity,” Van de Putte said. “But do you really want to be known as a site that charges money for slavery?”
Earlier this year, in an effort to curb trafficking, lawmakers in Tennessee and Washington state passed laws that would allow for the criminal prosecution of anyone who advertises commercial sex acts with a minor. In response, the website Backpage.com, a multipurpose classified ad site, sued state officials, arguing the laws violated its First Amendment rights and the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, among other protections.
“Backpage.com is committed to preventing those who are intent on misusing the site for illegal purposes,” Backpage.com spokesman Steve Suskin said on the website's blog. In court filings, Backpage.com argued that criminal penalties “would impose an intolerable burden on speech across the country.” Suskin did not reply to a request for comment on the Texas legislation.
Last year, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott reported that Texas receives the nation’s largest share — roughly 12 percent — of sex trafficking hotline calls. And, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law SB 24, which increased the penalty for a trafficking conviction to up to 99 years in prison.
But victims advocates and authorities worried that trafficked women and children would still be treated as criminals, rather than victims. Since 2011, a Joint Committee on Human Trafficking has heard testimony around the state on how to rework the trafficking laws.
"What I see more often is victims getting arrested. They don't go after the trafficker," said victim advocate Dottie Laster, who runs a consulting service on trafficking prevention.
Van de Putte said that at the hearings, she discovered how much websites profit from advertisements that lead to underage prostitution.
“They are blatantly promoting prostitution,” she said, "particularly with some of these code words that are promising sexual interactions with young, young women.”
Laster said that for the measure that allows lawsuits against advertisers to be successful, it should allow victims to have as long as they need before bringing a suit. “It takes a long time for them to get strong enough,” she said.
Associate Judge Angela Ellis of the Harris County Girls Court, which attempts to find treatment for trafficking victims, said one of the biggest problems she faces is getting the girls to see themselves as victims.
“These young women have been persuaded that the person who is compelling them into prostitution is a loved one,” she said at a committee hearing in Houston last month. “There is a great deal of time spent up front trying to dissuade them of that notion."
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