A new state law could lead to more prosecutions in Missouri of human traffickers.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lawmakers and children’s advocates are praising the signing into law of legislation with several provisions meant to help the state better care for children, including those who have been abused or trafficked.
Emily van Schenkhof with Missouri KidsFirst called Senate Bill 160 the best piece of legislation to come out of the 2017 regular legislative session.
Van Schenkhof said one of the most important pieces of SB 160 prevented the destruction of some 11,000 records related to cases of children that were abused but the perpetrator could not be identified. An appeals court ruling put those records in jeopardy.
SB 160 was carried in the House by Representative Diane Franklin (R-Camdenton). She said the ability to retain such records allows investigators to detect patterns in cases of abuse or neglect.
“The first time that, perhaps, it’s reported or it becomes known to the department, the child may be only three months old and it’s just been identified that abuse has taken place. If we’re not able to retain those records, then let’s say they’re two years old and there’s abuse and we’re not able to see that there’s a pattern in that child’s life of who they’re with that is resulting in harm to the child,” said Franklin.
Another key provision in SB 160 changes the definition of child abuse and neglect to include trafficking. Van Schenkhof said under state law, the ability for the state Children’s Division to get involved in a case hinged on a perpetrator having care, custody, and control of a child.
Franklin said the provision to change those definitions was “paramount.” It also makes available to Missouri more federal money, and aids in prosecution of both state and federal cases by aligning Missouri’s definition with that of federal law.
SB 160 also establishes the Foster Care Bill of Rights, to establish in law how foster children will be treated and how their rights will be protected. Another provision allows children entering foster care to be placed with people who are not related to, but have a close relationship with, the child or the child’s family – otherwise known as “kinship placements.”
SB 160 also extends through 2023 the existence of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Van Schenkhof praised the work done by Franklin on this legislation.