LAS CRUCES - Legislation to toughen penalties for the perpetrators and provide protection for the victims of human trafficking passed on a 63-3 vote Monday, Feb. 22, in the state House of Representatives.
House Bill 56 would change the crime of human trafficking from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony if the person being trafficked is age 18 or older or a first-degree felony if they are younger than 18. It would also ensure that victims forced into prostitution could not be charged with a crime.
“It takes the criminalization of the victim out of the process,” said cosponsor Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque. “Right now, if you are trafficked for sex work, you can be prosecuted. And we don’t want the victims to be further traumatized.”
Thomson said the increased penalties were needed to match the severity of the crime. “Under our current statutes, there are worse punishments for trafficking in drugs than there are for trafficking in a human being,” she said.
The bill would also expand the definition of human trafficking to include anyone “harboring, maintaining, patronizing and providing people for such purposes.” And it expands the definition of coercion to include physical restraint or the threat of physical restraint.
It would also include human trafficking under state racketeering laws, meaning it would cover forced labor beyond prostitution.
“It’s not just sex crimes, it’s labor crimes as well,” Thomson said.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the bill involves changes to who would be required to register as a sex offender. Under this bill, those who entered into conditional discharge agreements in the past would now be required to register as sex offenders for the first time.
Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, who cast one of the three “no” votes on the bill, said the retroactive aspect of the provision makes it a violation of the court agreement entered into by all parties in the case.
“The government can’t do stuff retroactively,” he said. “The judge, the defendant, the attorneys on both sides all left the courthouse knowing that person was not going to have to register.”
Conditional discharges are only available to defendants with no prior felony convictions, at the discretion of the judge. The defendant must complete a series of conditions established by the court to avoid formal conviction.
The state Law Offices of the Public Defender (LOPD) argues in the fiscal impact report on the bill that it would take discretion away from the court.
“The proposed change in the law would tie the district court’s hands and require sex offender registration — which is onerous, stigmatizing, and can last for 10 years or life, even in the most sympathetic cases,” LOPD said.
Cosponsor Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, said that change was needed to provide clarity and reduce ambiguity as to who was required to register.
The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration. A similar bill passed unanimously in the House last year but did not get a hearing in the Senate.
Also under consideration this year is House Bill 73, which would require Internet filters to block websites that are known to facilitate human trafficking or prostitution; or display child pornography, revenge porn, or obscene material that would be harmful to minors. It is awaiting its first hearing in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.