AP NEWS

Nebraska may take new steps to prosecute human traffickers

May 12, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Traffickers who sell women and children for sex in Nebraska could have their phones tapped by law enforcement and face prosecution years or even decades after their crimes under a sweeping new bill set for legislative debate.

Lawmakers are expected to vote on a package this week that would make it easier to prosecute human traffickers and provide state services to children who fall victim.

It’s the latest step in a multi-year, bipartisan push to clamp down on human trafficking in Nebraska. Lawmakers in recent years have increased criminal penalties for traffickers, cleared the way for more lawsuits by victims and shifted state law so that it focuses more on punishing pimps and johns while helping survivors.

The package will “continue to make Nebraska a leader in terms of combatting human trafficking,” said Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru, a leading sponsor.

The bill would extend the statute of limitations for sex and labor trafficking of an adult from three to seven years. For cases involving minors, it would abolish the statute of limitations. Nebraska imposes statutes of limitations for all but a handful of major crimes such as murder, arson, treason and certain forms of sexual assault.

Under the bill, prosecutors could charge caregivers with child abuse if they place children in a situation where they could be trafficked. Additionally, it would require the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate cases of child human trafficking and provide information about services available to help them.

Prosecutors could also seek a judge’s permission to monitor the communications of sex traffickers. State law already allows wire taps in cases involving murder, kidnapping, robbery, bribery, extortion and drug deals.

Supporters said the bill will help the state deter trafficking cases involving some of Nebraska’s most vulnerable residents.

“It significantly strengthens our laws against human trafficking,” said Nate Grasz, policy director for the Nebraska Family Alliance. “It ensures justice for victims and empowers law enforcement to really target human trafficking rings.”

Grasz pointed to a human trafficking investigation that used hidden cameras in Florida, resulting in charges being filed against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Kraft has pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor solicitation charges, and his attorneys have argued that Florida law doesn’t allow wiretaps for prostitution.

Critics said they support the effort to reduce human trafficking but cautioned against getting rid of statutes of limitations for additional crimes.

Statutes of limitations are designed to bring finality to cases, forcing prosecutors to either file charges or decline to pursue a case, said Christopher “Spike” Eickholt, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.

Eickholt said extending or eliminating a statute of limitations for one type of crime opens the door for lawmakers to do the same thing with others.

“At some point you ought to be able to know whether you’re going to be charged with a crime,” he said.

Grasz said human trafficking of children is egregious enough that it shouldn’t have a statute of limitations.

Nebraska has seen a handful of high-profile human trafficking cases, but tracking exact numbers is difficult because many are prosecuted as prostitution or child sexual assault cases, which carry harsher penalties. A 2017 study from the Women’s Fund of Omaha estimated that 900 people were sold for sex in Nebraska each month.

Nebraska has made major strides in addressing the problem and ranks well compared with other states, but it still isn’t providing enough money to help survivors once they’re escaped their trafficker, said Meghan Malik, trafficking project manager for the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

Malik said human trafficking survivors don’t always report the crime right away out of fear that their traffickers might retaliate against them, and many are still traumatized. That’s why it’s important for prosecutors to be able to file charges years after the abuse, she said.

“It can be very difficult to come forward,” she said. “This allows those survivors the time they need to heal and overcome their fears and pursue justice.”

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte