Legislative package addresses domestic violence, trafficking

      Missouri legislators passed a package of measures intended to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence and trafficking before the 2022 regular session drew to a close on May 13.  Senate Bill 775 contained language sponsored by several House members, and now awaits action by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Hannah Kelly (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s our big legislative win for this session,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, who was the legislative liaison for the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence during the regular session. 

      The bill was handled in the House by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who was glad to see it reach the governor’s desk despite issues in the legislature that created challenges for all legislation this year.

      “At the end of the day the process that our founding fathers set out caused it to be that we were able to come together and accomplish something good despite our differences and that is a beautiful thing that everybody needs to walk away remembering should always be our highest priority.  You’re not going to find a better [issue] to do it on than this.”

      Kelly said of particular importance to her, personally, in SB 775 is the language that establishes the “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.”  This seeks to make sure victims know their rights regarding the gathering of evidence and related medical exams; access to incident reports; and protections from intimidation and harassment by an attacker. 

      Kelly said someone important in her life is a victim of rape and, “The provisions in this bill, I believe, would’ve brought justice for this person in a swifter manner.”

      The Bill of Rights portion is meant to, among other things, give some clarity and guidance to victims, who often find themselves traumatized and with no knowledge of what to do or to whom to turn.

All [that a victim knows] is a really horrible thing has happened that nobody ever dreams will happen to them,” said Kelly.  “The heart and soul of it is protecting victims and providing stronger protections and providing education … and what greater cause to unite behind than educating and empowering victims in these horrible situations to know what their rights are and to know the pathway by which they can appropriately seek justice.”  

      SB 775 also clarifies definitions in Missouri law regarding “sexual contact” and “sexual conduct.”  Representative David Evans (R-West Plains) said he dealt with at least one case, during his 28 years as a judge, in which unclear definitions regarding contact with minor victims hindered prosecution.

      “Taking ambiguous law or badly written law and making it clear is important clearly for the victims of crime but also clarifies, which is required in criminal law, exactly what the crime is,” said Evans.  “None of us can be convicted of a crime that’s ambiguous.  That’s protection under due process … it’s good to have specific law especially when you’re dealing with a very serious felony.”

Representative David Evans (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      SB 775 would specify that no persons younger than 18 will be prosecuted for prostitution, and if located by law enforcement while engaged in commercial sexual acts, they will be considered a victim of abuse and referred to the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to receive help.  It also eliminates the requirement that a person under 18 and charged with prostitution must prove they were coerced to avoid conviction.

      These were provisions found in legislation sponsored by Representative Ed Lewis (R-Moberly), who said the laws regarding these individuals needs to be focused on getting them help. 

      “A lot of times a minor can be in that lifestyle and not even know that they’re being trafficked, not even know that they’re being abused.  They think, ‘Well no, I’m doing this of my own free will,’ but they’re not.  They’re being abused and used by some adult for their own gain, and we have to get them the help they need to help them to understand that this is not right,” said Lewis.  “Instead of looking at these people who have come to rescue them as rescuers they can look at them as the enemy and we have to make sure that they get the help that they need so they understand what their outcome should be and how to get back to what we would call a normal life free of abuse.”

      Other related sections deal with prosecuting those who attempted to engage in sexual acts or pornography-related offenses with individuals under 18. 

      The bill also contains language sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) dealing with orders of protection.  It would state that a person with an order of protection against them cannot skip a court date regarding that order and then plead ignorance to knowing it was still in effect.  He and Carter Dochler say this defense has often been successful for abusers who would violate an order and then say they didn’t know it was in place because they didn’t attend a hearing. 

      Roberts has often said that this and other proposals he has filed stem from his time in law enforcement – including as Joplin’s police chief and the director of the Department of Public Safety – and times in his career when he couldn’t help a victim because of how the law was written. 

      “Sometimes the law doesn’t serve the victim and sometimes, frankly, the process to provide due process to the person that’s accused ultimately re-victimizes the victim, so it’s been very frustrating to me throughout my [law enforcement] career.  Now I’m in a position to do something about it.”

      Along that same line, Roberts said a provision in SB 775 that is important to him is one that allows victims to testify via video rather than have to appear in court for a domestic violence proceeding. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Roberts says too often, a victim is afraid to proceed with prosecution for fear or retribution by their abuser.  This provision addresses that fear; specifically that requiring a victim to appear in court creates an instance in which their abuser will know where and when to find them. 

“If you read the newspapers you will frequently see where a domestic violence case was dismissed because the victim didn’t show up to testify.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s because they were afraid to show up but I guarantee you it’s a significant part of the number of people who don’t show up, and why.”

      With all these issues, legislators have to craft language that protects victims but also allows for due process for those who are accused.  Evans believes with SB 775, Missouri gets closer to finding the right balance between those considerations, “and again that’s one thing I really enjoy doing, is balancing the rights of those that are charged but making it absolutely clear to protect the victims of the crimes as well.  I think we’re getting there.”

      The House vote that sent SB 775 to the governor was 141-0.  Carter Dochler said the Coalition is, “very grateful and really excited [that] at a time where there has been so much turbulence on different issues that everybody could really come together and find agreement on items that would make things better for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or some other related judicial proceedings.”

SB 775 includes several other provisions, including those that would make it a crime for any coach of minors to abuse a minor, whereas currently law speaks only to high school coaches; extends protections against the release of a victim’s personal information to include their personal email address, birth date, health status, or any information from a forensic testing report; and further restricts when the prior sexual conduct of a witness or victim in a sexual offense case may be inquired about in a legal proceeding.

House endorses adding fentanyl, ‘date rape’ drugs to trafficking laws

The Missouri House has proposed strengthening the state’s trafficking laws to include the potent pain reliever fentanyl and its derivatives, as well as Rohypnol or GHB – both commonly known as “date rape” drugs.

Representative Nick Schroer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 239 would make possession or trafficking of those drugs a felony.  Penalties range from three years to life in prison, depending on the amount of the drug involved.  Missouri laws against trafficking do not include any of those substances.

Lawmakers heard that the abuse of fentanyl steadily increased between 2013 and 2017, and doctors said many people are being treated in emergency rooms because they took heroin mixed with fentanyl.

Bill sponsor Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon) said there is a hole in Missouri’s trafficking law, so prosecutors often must charge for whatever drug fentanyl is laced with.  He said more and more it’s being trafficked by itself, as it’s becoming more popular to abuse.

“I have two beautiful, amazing daughters that I kind of want to ensure … that they are not going to be exposed to these things such as fentanyl and carfentanyl and these other drugs of choice that are so dangerous that being prescribed in a micro-milligram fashion can actually kill you,” said Schroer.

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and is legally used to manage pain, especially after surgery.

“We saw right before the hearing [on HB 239] that there was a record bust in the United States – 260 pounds was busted at the [U.S.] border … but in years past we’ve had many different seizures on Highway 44, Highway 70, where it was 30, 40 pounds, which was enough to kill not only everybody who’s in this Capitol right now, and this Capitol is full, it could kill many Missourians,” said Schroer.

As a criminal defense attorney Schroer represented a number of people who had battled heroin addiction.  That’s how he became aware of the rise of fentanyl.

“The majority of those people said, ‘Once fentanyl came into the picture a lot of my friends either died or a lot of my friends became so hooked that we thought it was a lost cause,’” said Schroer.

Representative Gina Mitten (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis) sponsored the amendment that would make possessing or trafficking Rohypnol or GHB punishable by the same penalties as those for other controlled substances.

“If you’ve got somebody at a party that’s got 37 grams of marijuana, why would they have received a greater sentence than somebody that has less than a gram of Rohypnol or GHB?” asked Mitten.  “My amendment … ensured that there was parity between those substances, because personally I believe that the ‘date rape’ drugs are apt to do a heck of a lot more damage than a large amount of marijuana or even heroin.”

Schroer and Mitten both acknowledged that Rohypnol and GHB are also used extensively in sex trafficking.

“If we’re going to take a hard stance on human trafficking it needs to include these substances,” said Mitten.

Schroer anticipates some in the Senate might try to make additions to HB 239 and then send the bill back to the House.  He is optimistic that Governor Mike Parson (R) would sign the bill if it gets to him.

House Committee advances bill to protect trafficking victims from prosecution

A bill meant to make it easier for sex trafficking victims to avoid being prosecuted for prostitution is advancing through the Missouri House.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman presents House Bill 397, the first bill of her legislative career, to the House Committee on General Laws. (photo; Mike Lear, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law makes it an affirmative defense for a minor charged with prostitution to have been acting under coercion at the time of the crime.  Under House Bill 397 it would be an affirmative defense that the defendant was under the age of 18.  It would also allow a person guilty of prostitution while a minor to apply to the courts to have records of that crime expunged.

“Right now not all of our laws treat victims as victims,” Jessica Seitz with Missouri Kids First told the House Committee on General Laws.  “This, right now, is essentially a loophole where a young person can be charged with prostitution when they’re a victim of trafficking, and this can be even more traumatic.  Arrest and prosecution can further traumatize a victim which prevents victims from seeking assistance.”

The bill is sponsored by freshman state lawmaker Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold).

“This is a common sense provision in the first part of the bill that says if you can’t consent to a tattoo or to have your ears pierced, that you cannot consent to prostitution,” said Coleman.

Coleman told the committee it can be difficult for minors to prove coercion because trafficking victims have often been forced to abuse drugs.

“By the time that she’s arrested it’s difficult to untangle and prove force or coercion because at that point she may be paying off fines and paying off her drug use,” said Coleman.

The bill would also add some offenses related to child abuse and sex trafficking to the state law’s definition of “pattern of criminal gang activity.”  Advocates say the frequency of trafficking operations being conducted by gangs has increased in recent years.

Office of Child Advocate Director Kelly Schultz spoke in support of that provision.  She told the committee about the handling of a case when a child in the state’s foster system was found to have been trafficked.

“Somebody actively recruited that child, somebody advertised that child, somebody got them a hotel room, and somebody enforced payment.  Johns weren’t just willingly throwing money at young kids to have sex.  Somebody was enforcing the payment as well.  It was very much an organized crime,” said Schultz.

Schultz stressed to lawmakers that in a 2013 nationwide raid by the FBI, about 60-percent of the children recovered were involved in the child welfare system and many had open foster care cases.

“I always tell the public these children are our responsibility, but when I’m talking to you guys I am being very literal.  These children – 60-percent of them – are literally our responsibility,” said Schultz.

The committee voted unanimously to advance the bill.  It is scheduled to be considered Monday by another committee, and then it could go before the full House for debate.

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.

Proposal to increase minimum age for marriage aims to fight sex trafficking

A freshman state representative has filed another effort to make Missouri less attractive to sex traffickers.

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

Manchester Republican Jean Evans’ prefiled legislation would increase from 15 to 17 the minimum age at which a person can receive a marriage license.  Missouri law allows teens as young as 15 to get a license when extenuating circumstances exist, as long as one of the teen’s parents gives consent.

Evans said traffickers have been taking advantage of Missouri’s law, bringing trafficking victims to the state to marry their abusers.  That makes prosecuting the abuser difficult or impossible.

“That’s not something that we want to be known for, is a place for sex traffickers to come to do that sort of thing,” said Evans. 

Evans said such marriages are able to take place because parents are sometimes involved in trafficking their own children.  She said she learned about the issue from a report by KMOV reporter Lauren Trager.

“One of the things they discovered in the [House Task Force on Sex Trafficking] is that it was more prevalent than I think people may have realized.  I recall one case where there was a woman who reported she had been trafficked starting at the age of 3, by her parents,” said Evans.  “As disturbing and disgusting as that is, that is a reality that we’re dealing with, and to the extent that we can intervene we want to do so.”

Evans said practically, there is little done to investigate extenuating circumstances when a marriage license is sought for someone as young as 15.

“We’ve sort of left it to the recorder of deeds or whoever is issuing a marriage license in each particular county to determine that.  I believe that that’s not their responsibility.  They’re not social workers or FBI agents.  They’re just issuing the marriage license as long as they have one parent’s consent,” said Evans.  “I think it places an undue burden on them to investigate whether the circumstances are extreme, as outlined in the statute.”

Evans’ bill is not based on a recommendation from the Task Force on Sex Trafficking, but she has discussed the issue with its chairman, Springfield Representative Elijah Haahr (R).  She sees her bill as part of a broader effort to fight trafficking – an effort based largely on the work of that Task Force.

House members will be asked to consider other legislation related to trafficking – much of it based on the work of the Task Force.  HB 261 would require employers to display posters with the national trafficking hotline and related information.  Other recommendations by the Task Force deal with creating a position in state government to oversee anti-trafficking efforts, and supporting groups that offer victims treatment and assistance to transition out of trafficking.

Evans’ legislation is HB 270.