Florida was one of the top-ranked states for human trafficking in 2017, falling behind only California and Texas for the highest number of sex trafficking incidents reported. In response to the disturbing reports about sex trafficking and other illegal human trafficking in the state, Florida legislators have proposed several laws designed to catch and punish the individuals involved in these illegal industries.

What is defined as Human Trafficking?

In Florida, Human Trafficking is a crime involving the forced labor or sexual exploitation of an individual. A person may face charges for Human Trafficking if that person knowingly or recklessly takes part in or benefits from the transporting, recruiting, providing, harboring, soliciting, enticing, obtaining or maintaining another human being in order to exploit that other person by forcing them to perform labor, services or sexual acts.

Sentencing for Human Trafficking Crimes

Under Florida law, Human Trafficking is a First Degree Felony. Anyone convicted of the crime of Human Trafficking for Labor or Services or Commercial Sexual Activity faces a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty-one months in prison. The maximum sentence is thirty years in prison, thirty years of probation, and fines totaling up to $10,000. If the victim is a child or mentally defective person, the minimum sentence rises to 66 months in prison and the possibility of life in prison or life on probation.

Why is Human Trafficking Such a Problem in Florida?

Sunny Florida is a popular tourist destination with a massively busy cruise port, and large universities. According to activists in the state, these attributes make Florida ripe for human trafficking.

Sex Trafficking: Hotels and Motels Serve as Venues for Trafficking

Based on a report published by the Administration of Children and Families (ACF), Florida’s high number of trafficking cases were taking place in hotels and motels. One of the strategies being proposed to catch perpetrators and prevent human trafficking is targeting the hotels and requiring staff in the hospitality industry to undergo training focused on spotting possible human trafficking scenarios and reporting those issues to the authorities.

Governor Ron DeSantis signed the law over the summer, and it will be in effect on January 1, 2021. In addition to hotel employees, individuals who work at spas and massage parlors are subject to the new law. Businesses that are included in the legislation but fail to comply will face steep fines of up to $2,000 a day.

The law also includes a “Soliciting for Prostitution Registry,” which would be maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Anyone charged with compelling or soliciting prostitution would be included in the register, even if their case resulted in probation and their guilt was never adjudicated.

The law has many critics. Social workers and those in the sex industry believe that it will potentially place human trafficking victims at risk. It is unclear whether the registry will be available to the public. If the registry were available to the public, the names of many non-violent offenders would be searchable, and the result could be that individuals on the list lose their jobs or face other hardships.

Punishing “Johns” to Deter Traffickers

Another bill proposed in the Florida Senate would increase penalties for solicitors, commonly referred to as “johns,” but only in cases where the solicited individual was a victim of human trafficking. The current law in Florida does not involve any mandatory jail time for the individuals who solicit prostitution, and in many cases, the only punishment is probation. The proposed law would require the courts to sentence anyone convicted of soliciting a human trafficking victim to a minimum of thirty days in jail.

The theory behind the proposed law is that in order to curb sex trafficking, the demand side of the equation must be faced with harsher penalties. Proponents of the bill hope that by punishing the solicitors, law enforcement will be able to deter traffickers from attempting to operate in the area.

There are many critics of this proposed law as well. One problem opponents point to is that in many cases, sex workers and solicitors do not speak the same language making communication between them limited. Many solicitors genuinely do not know that the sex worker they paid was a victim of human trafficking and not voluntarily engaging in prostitution. Even in cases where there is no language barrier and where the sex worker is a victim of trafficking, many of these individuals have Stockholm Syndrome and may not admit that they are victims and often lie about their circumstances.

Additionally, prostitution is illegal whether the prostitute is a victim of human trafficking or a voluntary sex worker. Because prostitution is illegal, solicitors typically avoid asking the prostitute too many questions.

The result of the dynamic is that many solicitors who did not intend to engage with a victim of human trafficking may ultimately end up in jail. Additionally, some argue that harsher sentencing is not an effective deterrent to crime. The only result might end up being more crowded jails and higher costs for taxpayers.

Human Trafficking in Florida

The numbers indicate there is a clear human trafficking problem in Florida. However, many fear that attempts to curb this crime will punish the wrong individuals and do little actually to stop human trafficking in the state.

Defending Against Human Trafficking Charges

An individual charged with human trafficking may have numerous possible defenses to those charges. In many cases, the defense might be that the alleged trafficking victim was actually a willing participant voluntarily engaging in prostitution. While prostitution is still a crime, the penalties are far less severe for prostitution than for human trafficking.

As with any crime, there may also be factual disputes or other defenses depending on the facts specific to the case.

Getting Help to Defend Against Human Trafficking Charges

Human Trafficking charges come with serious penalties. Anyone facing these charges should take them seriously and speak to an experienced attorney to discuss possible defense strategies.