Bill would “level playing field” in human trafficking cases

By LAURA BOHANNON
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan ranks seventh nationally in reports of human trafficking, and a lawmaker wants to give prosecutors more tools to combat those crimes.

Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, has introduced a bill that would allow certified experts to testify about telltale signs of deviant social behavior demonstrated by human trafficking victims.

Bringing in experts to testify about a victim’s behavior allows judges and juries to receive informed opinion that the victim has, in fact, been subject to human trafficking.

Human trafficking is defined as forcing or deceiving a person to perform labor or a commercial sex act, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline website, which is run by Polaris, a nonprofit group fighting slavery.

“It’s an epidemic,” Lucido said, of people buying other people.

“We know why they’re buying them, but who are the people buying them?” Lucido said. “Have they been prosecuted?”

Typically, it’s extremely difficult to find human traffickers, “unless you pick one up with the bust,” said Lucido, who was previously a criminal defense lawyer.

Lucido’s legal background exposed him to the difficulties victims may have in court if they choose to testify.

“I’ve seen victims on the stand when I had to represent people on the opposite side, and I’m just trying to make it a level playing field,” Lucido said.

Expert witnesses can help do that, he said. The testimony of a qualified expert is not only more credible than testimony from a non-expert, but is regarded as a higher authority in evidence by judges and juries.

But the challenge is that human trafficking is such a newly classified crime that it’s hard to find an expert specifically in that field. Qualifying experts under Lucido’s bill would be people who have dealt with victims who have been subject to human trafficking, he said.

When it comes to the behavior of victims, “there’s a lot of consistencies” in their symptoms, behavioral patterns and actions or inactions. A few common behaviors are withdrawal, inability to communicate properly or think straight, loss of self-esteem and lethargy.

Judges determine who qualifies as an expert, and experts must be on prosecutors’ endorsed witness list, Lucido said. When the prosecution brings in an expert to testify, it’s often difficult for the defense to poke holes into that testimony.

Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, is also active in fighting human trafficking. She said she likes the bill Lucido introduced, especially because it’s clear and concise.

“I think it’s a great piece of legislation,” Emmons said. “It just raises awareness and helps elevate the discussion to the next level.”

Emmons also said finding an expert witness in human trafficking could be challenging.

“Probably your most expert individuals on human trafficking are survivors,” she said.

Michigan had 246 known cases of human trafficking in 2016, according to National Human Trafficking Hotline data.

Michigan’s proximity to Canada, Toledo, Chicago and various waterways makes it a hub for such activity, Lucido said.

“There are lots of ways traffickers can get in and out of Michigan,” Emmons said. “And fairly rapidly, if you think about it. There’s a lot of opportunity to get out within an hour probably in most situations.”

Michigan also hosts many conventions, which attract traffickers because they draw a large number of people to one location, Emmons said. Traffickers lure victims by distracting them with notes or debris on a car’s windshield, or they will befriend people at malls or online dating sites, she said.

She said traffickers frequent places like shopping malls so they can build relationships and establish trust with potential victims.

When Emmons speaks on human trafficking, she is often approached by people who have been affected by it

“Regardless of the size of the audience,” she said, “somebody always comes up to me afterward — and maybe more than one — and talks about a situation they know of, that they experienced, or somebody in their family experienced, or somebody close to them. …

“That’s pretty telling to me that it’s pretty rampant.”

Lucido said human trafficking almost always involves sex trafficking.

Of the 246 cases reported in 2016, more than three quarters — 191– were for sex trafficking. Thirty cases involved labor trafficking, 17 cases did not specify the type of trafficking and eight cases were for both sex and labor trafficking.

The numbers of calls and cases have gone up since 2012 in Michigan, according to National Human Trafficking Hotline data. Emmons said the increase is due to heightened awareness.

“This is not something I would consider political. This is the real deal,” Lucido said. “This is wrong, wrong, wrong, what’s going on here. Whether it’s happening on a farm, or it’s happening in a city, or it’s happening in a suburb, it’s happening. Period.”

The bill has been referred to the Law and Justice Committee.

To report a case or a tip on human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-888-373-7888.