House bill signed into law that could put more traffickers behind bars

      A new state law could lead to more prosecutions in Missouri of human traffickers.

Representative Patricia Pike (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Governor Mike Parson (R) recently signed into law House Bill 1472 to change in state law definitions related to currency and money laundering.  That might not sound like trafficking legislation, but advocates say it is.

      “Remember, for traffickers human trafficking is about making the highest profit possible with the lowest risk to get caught by law enforcement.  This is the key.  For that reason traffickers need to find ways to eliminate anything, any ways that could lead law enforcement and authorities to them … or be used as evidence,” said Doctor Shima Rostami, Executive Director of Gateway Human Trafficking based in Chesterfield.  “For that reason virtual currency and engaging peer-to-peer mobile payments has been playing a great role for payments concerning trafficking operations lately, and because the laws haven’t been updated … to help prosecutors and law enforcement use the evidence they can gather from these forms of transactions, it’s been very difficult for prosecutors and law enforcement to follow the footprints of traffickers in trafficking operations.”

      Dr. Rostami says prosecutors are often left with no evidence aside from the testimony of victims, and victims often refuse to testify.  This can be for many reasons stemming from their experience, including traumas they suffered or because trafficking organizations may still have leverage over them such as threats against their families or even holding family members hostage. 

      She offered examples, including that of a victim who was kidnapped as a child and is now an adult.  Over the course of her experience she was raped more than 24,000 times.

      “It is going to be impossible for that human being to be in the same courtroom to testify against the trafficker in front of the trafficker.  All of the trauma, what they went through; the pain comes through them and keeps them back from actually functioning.”

      Dr. Rostami said these situations made it more important that Missouri’s law be updated so that evidence of virtual money laundering can be used at trial.

Doctor Shima Rostami (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s golden if we could use that other evidence, like money laundering evidence, to prove the trafficking operation … however if you won’t be able to prosecute trafficking charges, at least other physical evidence can help prosecutors charge traffickers with other criminal charges rather than just letting them go because we don’t have enough evidence to use against them.”

      HB 1472 adds to state law definitions for “cryptocurrency,” “financial transaction,” and “transaction;” and replaces the definition for “currency” with one for “monetary instruments.”  It was sponsored by Representative Patricia Pike (R-Adrian), who has worked on several trafficking issues during her 8 years in the House.  She said those continue to be important in Missouri because its location makes it important for trafficking.

      “We are a crossroads in the United States.  There’s a highway and transportation hub of the United States going through Missouri.”

      “I’m looking forward to following this legislation as it’s incorporated into the legal system and seeing what kind of difference it makes in the years to come,” said Pike.

      The House voted 141-2 to send that bill to Governor Parson.

House proposes boost to fight against human trafficking

      Missourians could decide whether to create a new fine against people convicted of human trafficking or (prostitution) offenses, to pay for efforts to fight trafficking and treat its victims, under legislation from the House.

Representative Jeff Coleman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communication)

      The House voted to pass House Bill 2307 and has given initial approval to House Joint Resolution 114.  Together, those would create a fine of $5000 to be assessed against anyone convicted of a trafficking-related offense or of soliciting a prostitute. 

      That fine would be divided between two uses, according to sponsor Jeff Coleman (R-Grain Valley).

      “The $5,000 will be dispersed and allocated 50-percent towards the rehabilitation services of the victims of human trafficking, and 50-percent will be allocated towards the local efforts to prevent human trafficking such as education to law enforcement, hospitals, and schools,” said Coleman. 

      Both pieces must be approved for Coleman’s plan to work.  HB 2307 would create in state statutes the framework for the fine and the fund into which it would go, but the decision on whether the fine could be used as he proposes would be left to Missouri voters.  HJR 114 would create the ballot question they would have to answer.

      “Under the Missouri constitution, all fines that are levied in Missouri go to the school districts.  We’re not taking away from the schools … this is a new fine.  We’re just asking that it does not go to the schools in this case; that it go to the services that we’re providing for,” said Coleman. 

      Coleman said this new fine could provide game-changing support for efforts against trafficking.  In the cases of victims, they often need various services such as counseling to help them recover and lead a normal life.

      “It takes a lot of money to help these victims get back on a path of restoration,” said Coleman. 

      The education his proposal would help pay for is something that law enforcement is asking for, as he’s been told by its providers.

      “When they go out and do this education for law enforcement agencies they will have people come up and be very, very upset at the fact that had they had this information just two weeks ago that they might have been able to help somebody because now they are prepared and they know what to look for where they didn’t two weeks ago, and they let somebody go because they didn’t know,” said Coleman.  “It’s a blessing and it’s also a curse because they now think back about all the people that they could’ve saved had they had this information, so what this [proposal] is to do is to help educate people what to look for.”

      Coleman said human trafficking is a big issue for Missouri and the state needs more ways to deal with it.

      “Especially in the Kansas City area we are the heart, because we have I-35 going north and south, we have I-70 going east and west, and we are the pass-through of all human trafficking.”

      He also said he feels personally passionate about the issue.

      “This is something that is near and dear to my heart just simply because I have four daughters,” said Coleman.  “I cringe.”

      The House voted 140-0 on HB 2307, sending it to the Senate.  It has given initial approval to HJR 114.

Bill honoring the late Rep. Cloria Brown becomes law

Missouri House members have taken time this session to honor one of their own.

Representative Cloria Brown (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communciations)

The House and Senate agreed on House Bills 448 & 206, to rename a portion of U.S. 61/67/50/Lindbergh Boulevard in St. Louis County the “Rep. Cloria Brown Memorial Highway.”  Brown was a state representative representing part of south St. Louis County for more than five years.  She died in March of last year after a battle with cancer.

That legislation was signed into law today by Governor Mike Parson (R), who was accompanied by Brown’s family and some of her colleagues, and in front of around 100 legislators.

Parson said it was significant that so many lawmakers stepped away to witness the signing while the busy legislative session is still underway.

“This says a lot for Cloria … who she was,” said Parson.  “What she accomplished, the goals she had in mind, with the representation she made of her family that are here today, and a representation of you – of all of us that work in this building when you have people like that come along sometimes and show us all that there’s a higher road to take.”

Brown has been remembered by colleagues and even political rivals as hard working, tough, and compassionate.  She worked on the House’s budget committee; proposed a ban on texting while driving; and backed measures aimed at fighting human and sex trafficking.

In 2017 Brown sponsored a bill to require the development and display in certain workplaces of posters with the Human Trafficking Hotline.  The posters’ aim is to provide information on how victims can be helped and how to fight trafficking.  A similar bill, House Bill 1246, became law last year, with Brown considered one of the driving forces behinds its passage.  It was sponsored by Representative Patricia Pike (R-Adrian).

“Cloria Brown was a joy to so many people; her family, her friends, the legislators, and the citizens.  We loved her smile, we loved her very defined work ethic,” said Pike.  “As a state representative she served with grace and she served with commitment.”

Earlier story:  Missouri legislature approves human trafficking hotline posters

Brown also co-sponsored House Bill 1562 in 2016, which expanded Missouri’s law against sex trafficking to include advertising a child participating in a commercial sexual act.  That bill was sponsored by current House Speaker Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

Earlier story:  Missouri toughens laws against human trafficking, sponsor says more to come

Representative Jim Murphy (R-St. Louis) now represents what was Brown’s district.  He also knew her personally.

“Cloria, your legacy inspired us not to sit idly by, but to continue to stand up for those who have no voice,” said Murphy.

Governor Mike Parson, House Speaker Elijah Haahr, members of former Rep. Cloria Brown’s family, and dozens of current and former lawmakers attended the signing of legislation naming a portion of highway in honor of Brown. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Scott Sifton’s (D-Affton) Senate district overlaps the district Brown represented, and they served together in the House.  He praised Brown for representing the refugee population in her district.

“For anybody that knows south St. Louis County, it is an area that demands a lot of accountability and attention from its elected leadership.  Folks there take things very seriously,” said Sifton.  “What that results in, and really demands, is a lot of hard work and close connection of the people that represent that area to the constituents they serve, and nobody exemplified that better, in the time that I have been involved, than Cloria Brown.”

Brown was buried in St. John’s Cemetery, which overlooks Lindbergh Boulevard, a portion of which will now be named for her.

The sign designating that section of road in her name will be paid for by private donations.

Missouri legislature approves human trafficking hotline posters

The first bill to be passed out of the Missouri legislature in 2018 aims to fight human trafficking.

Representative Patricia Pike (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 1246 would require the Department of Public Safety to develop posters that provide information on what human trafficking is and how victims can get help.  It would require those posters to be displayed by certain businesses including hotels and motels, strip clubs, private clubs, airports, emergency rooms, bus stations, and truck and rest stops.

The posters will include the National Human Trafficking Resource Hotline, which is 888-373-7888, and by text is 233733 (BEFREE).

HB 1246 is sponsored by Adrian Republican Patricia Pike.

“This bill works to provide rescue information to the victims and educate the citizens about human trafficking in a statewide and uniform way,” said Pike.  “I believe this bill will save lives, bring victims home to their families, and educate the public further on how to identify human trafficking.  It will also provide law enforcement with increased opportunities to receive tips to help combat trafficking.”

Representative Michael Butler (D-St. Louis) said trafficking is a major issue in Missouri and particularly in St. Louis.  He said the legislation is a sign that the legislature, and the state, are starting to recognize how great that issue is, and said more must be done.

“The greatest fear I have is something like this happening to my daughter.  Many of us, I’m sure, who have children, we think about it every time we’re in the grocery store, every time we’re somewhere public – that you could lose that person and it was your responsibility,” said Butler.  “I just thank [Representative Pike] for making me feel a little more comfortable about what I’m doing here today and whenever I think about that in the grocery store … I think about this bill.”

Under the bill the posters must be created by January 1, 2019, and must be displayed by the establishments specified in the bill by March 1, 2019.  Businesses that repeatedly fail to display them could incur fines.  The posters will be printed at the cost of each business that must display them.

House Speaker Todd Richardson prepares to sign HB 1246 so that it may be sent to the governor’s office for consideration. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The creation and display of such posters was one of the recommendations of the House Task Force on Human Trafficking, which was chaired by Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield).

Pike said more than 20 states have such posters and it has been shown that trafficking victims who use the national hotline have a better chance of being rescued.

The bill was passed out of the House in January 139-5 and the Senate passed it early this month.  It now awaits action from the governor’s office or it could become law without any such action after 15 days.

Last year a similar bill sponsored by Representative Cloria Brown reached the state Senate but did not come to a vote in that chamber.

The House this week also passed a bill that sets a minimum age for applicants for Missouri marriage licenses.  Sponsor Jean Evans (R-Manchester) said the bill would combat traffickers and abusers bringing minor victims to Missouri to marry them.  That bill has been sent to the Senate for consideration.

House endorses minimum age for Missouri marriage licenses

The House this week voted to set a minimum age at which people in Missouri can get a marriage license, but the bill met more resistance than last year.

Representative Jean Evans (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Marriage licenses can now be issued to persons younger than 15 under certain conditions.  House Bill 1630 would increase that age to 17 and require a court hearing on whether the marriage is advisable.  No licenses would be issued when either party is younger than 15, or when one party is 21 or older and the other party is younger than 17.

Bill sponsor Jean Evans (R-Manchester) began offering the legislation last year as a way to fight human trafficking; particularly cases in which abusers bring young trafficking victims to Missouri to marry them.

“Currently we do not have a minimum age of marriage in Missouri and this bill seeks to correct that,” said Evans.  “In addition it will protect young people from predators and those who might do them harm with forced marriages.”

The bill had bipartisan support, including from St. Louis Democrat Michael Butler, who said it’s appropriate for the legislature to set a minimum age for things like marriage.

“A decision to get married … is a very important decision, and minors in a lot of cases, we know, generally don’t have complete control when that decision is made.  To create a way for young people in our state to be protected from tough decisions that aren’t made by themselves, and we know this is occurring, is something that we should be doing,” said Butler.

Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) who argued that Missouri has a serious problem with human trafficking.

“If someone over the age of 21 – someone 30 years-old comes to a high school and engages in sexual activity with a 15 year-old or a 12 year-old or anyone under the age of consent that’s statutory rape, and right now that person can legitimately get married.  That’s a problem,” said Dogan.

Similar legislation passed out of the House last year 139-1, but this year many Republicans opposed the bill.  Some, including Lincoln Republican Wanda Brown, don’t like the requirement that a court hearing decide whether a marriage license should be issued for someone between the ages of 15 and 17.

Representative Wanda Brown (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I’m not opposed, necessarily, to raising the age limit for marriage.  What I’m opposed to is telling every parent in this state they’re not fit to make a decision for their child without asking a judge, and of course paying an attorney,” said Brown.  “The bill was brought forward in the name of stopping human trafficking.  This is a made-up concept.  This does nothing to stop the traffickers.  This only takes the parental rights of good, law abiding citizens.”

Others like David Wood (R-Versailles) expressed concern the bill might affect religious populations living in their districts.

“I have a very large Mennonite population.  Mennonite population typically marries relatively young,” said Wood.  “My court could get really backed up waiting on a judge to approve a lot of these weddings when they’re approved by the family, they’re approved by the church, and they’re welcomed in the community.”

Regarding concerns like those of Wood, Evans said her bill is very similar to one in place in Pennsylvania where there are significant, similar religious populations.

“If you’re under 18 you have to have parent permission and go before a judge, and the judge just has to basically say there’s nothing – there’s no ill will here.  There’s not somebody taking advantage of someone.  This is a good fit, the families support it, and go forward and get married,” said Evans.  “It’s very similar to that and it’s worked very well in Pennsylvania where, again, they have much larger communities of Amish and Mennonite even than we do here in Missouri.”

Evans also said the bill does nothing to prevent a religious wedding ceremony.

Despite increased opposition over last year, a bipartisan 95-50 vote sent the bill to the Senate.  Last year Evans’ similar legislation was approved by a Senate committee but advanced no further.

Another measure backers say will help fight human trafficking became the first bill sent to the governor’s office in 2018.  Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) signed House Bill 1246.  The bill, sponsored by Adrian Republican Patricia Pike would require the development of posters displaying information on human trafficking.

House again considering requiring human trafficking posters at some businesses

The state House is again considering a bill that would require certain employers to display posters with information about human trafficking.

Representative Cloria Brown presents House Bill 261 that would require the creation and placement of posters offering help to human trafficking victims. In front of her are examples of posters from some of the 28 other states that have passed a similar law. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Cloria Brown presents House Bill 261 that would require the creation and placement of posters offering help to human trafficking victims. In front of her are examples of posters from some of the 28 other states that have passed a similar law. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 261 is based on one of the recommendations made by the House Task Force on Human Trafficking.  It’s sponsored by St. Louis Representative Cloria Brown (R).

“The objective of the bill is to assist victims and survivors of human trafficking by providing them with a telephone number; a national hotline that they can use to ask for help,” said Brown.  “It enables them to have access to critical support and services so that they can get away from their traffickers.”

28 other states have similar laws, and Brown developed her bill based on those.

The bill would require the Department of Public Safety to create the posters, and requires that it be displayed by hotels, motels, establishments “cited as a public nuisance for prostitution,” strip clubs or other “sexually oriented businesses,” airports, trains stations that serve passengers, emergency rooms, urgent care centers, women’s health centers, businesses that offer massages, bus stations, and privately owned facilities that offer food, fuel, showers, and overnight parking, such as truck stops.

The posters would have to be placed in or near the bathrooms or entraces of those businesses beginning March 1, 2018.

The signs must also be placed in businesses that offer “body work,” such as tattoo parlors.  Ellen Alper with the National Council of Jewish Women in St. Louis said that is because victims are often forced to get tattoos.

“Sometimes traffickers tattoo their victims in order to let people know who they belong to,” said Alper.

Alper said in addition to informing victims, the posters are intended to inform members of the public.

“If they see something or they notice something and they think, ‘Oh, that’s a little odd, we’re not sure what’s going on,’ it gives them a way to take action as well,” said Alper.

The same proposal was part of a bill passed last year by the House that never came to a vote in the Senate.  HB 261 was presented last week to the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety, which has not voted on it.