A generation ago, the term “trafficking” was typically associated with drug crimes. Today, it is often used to describe forced labor or sex acts victimizing immigrants or runaways.
Recently in Dallas, Shatara Armstrong, a Fort Worth resident, pleaded guilty to the offense of use of a facility of interstate commerce in aid of a racketeering enterprise. In this case, Armstrong participated in a conspiracy facilitating commercial sex acts using a 14-year-old girl and two 17-year-old girls. While Armstrong’s primary role was to rent rooms for such acts, other conspirators acted as pimps, recruited victims, and posted advertisements to attract prostitution customers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
This is one of many human trafficking cases that are being pursued federally based upon criminal acts occurring within the interior United States. As could be expected, immigrants and runaways are particularly vulnerable. Cities closer to the border such as San Antonio are the site of many trafficking prosecutions, however trafficking cases are also increasingly being found in locations much further from the border.
In fact, in the last two years, North Texas courts have been the venue for multiple sex trafficking cases.
Under federal law, trafficking offenses are taken very seriously and can carry stiff penalties. In fact, multiple federal and state agencies are involved in the investigation and prosecution of such offenses including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), DARPA, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Fort Worth Police Department, and the United States Attorney’s Office, to name a few. Further, the Department of Justice launched Project Safe Childhood (PSC)10 years ago to combat technology facilitated sex crimes against children. Since 2011, the DOJ has filed 20,260 PSC cases.
The federal definition for trafficking can be found in various statutes.
Under this statute, federal law defines the receipt of forced labor and the providing of forced labor. Force, threats of force, abuse, serious harm, threats of abuse of law or legal process (threats to have a person deported), are the means by which a victim is recognized in federal courts to have been subject to forced labor. The penalty for providing or benefitting from forced labor is up to 20 years imprisonment. If a person dies in course of such activity, or subject to a kidnapping, or aggravated sexual abuse, the penalty could be any term of imprisonment up to life.
Here, trafficking includes recruiting, harboring, transporting, or obtaining any person for forced labor. As is the case respecting forced labor offenses, the penalty for labor trafficking is up to 20 years imprisonment. If a person dies in course of such activity, or subject to a kidnapping, or aggravated sexual abuse, the penalty could be any term of imprisonment up to life.
Here, trafficking includes enticing, harboring, transporting, soliciting a person to engage in a commercial sex act. Any sex act, “on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person” is a commercial sex act.
This law states that use of force, threats of force, or coercion, including threatening the arrest of an immigrant, to get a person to engage in a commercial sex act, is a federal felony. For persons who force, or threaten force, or employ a coercive tactic to cause a person to engage in a commercial sex act, or persons simply facilitating commercial sex acts for a victim under 14, the penalty is between 15 years and life imprisonment.
For persons facilitating commercial sex acts for a victim between 14 and 18, the penalty is between 10 years and life imprisonment.
This means that people compelled to engage in commercial sex acts are victims and that children under 18 who are enticed to engage in commercial sex acts are victims.
Persons found to have obstructed the enforcement of laws preventing forced labor, trafficking with respect to forced labor, or sex trafficking may be imprisoned for a term not to exceed 20 years. See 18 USC 1590(b) and 1591(d).
Efforts by the federal government to combat human trafficking can be traced back to the early 1900s and continue to this day. Here’s a brief look at the historical legal framework.
Under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, perpetrators of sex trafficking offenses are assigned a beginning offense level of 34 unless the offense did not involve force and the victim was between the ages of 14-18. Such cases begin at offense level 14. For general purposes of reference (because the Guidelines are not the only driver of a sentence) the minimum sentence under level 34 is 151 months. Under level 14 it is 15 months. Remember, the statutory minimum is 10 years, meaning that 10 years is the lowest sentence possible regardless of the Guideline recommendation.
Forced labor offenses oftentimes start at offense level 18. Under level 14 it is 27 months. Remember, the statutory minimum is 10 years meaning that 10 years is the lowest sentence possible regardless of the Guideline recommendation.
While such crimes are often horrific and the moral impetus for such crimes is obvious, no one should assume that just because a person is accused of trafficking that he or she is guilty. Unfortunately, trafficking cases can involve the same vulnerabilities as other crimes.
For example, trafficking is a basis for victims to apply for a U-visa allowing noncitizens to remain in the United States. Unfortunately, like any other benefit, the immigration system runs the risk of abuse by persons falsely claiming to be trafficking victims to remain in the U.S.
Also, trafficking cases are highly dependent upon the credibility and reliability of alleged victims. Because many accusations of threats and prior acts of violence do not involve physical evidence or scientific verification, the victim’s word is often the basis for prosecution.
People facing such accusations need to employ counsel who are experienced in the investigation and trial of violent and sometimes sexually violent offenses. Further, lawyers with significant trial experience are preferable.
Are you or a loved one facing charges related to human trafficking? Call a Fort Worth federal human trafficking lawyer for a complimentary strategy session.