Lawmakers pass, governor approves bills to curb sex trafficking

Editor’s note: This story includes governor approval of LB1132 and LB1120.

People once forced by sex traffickers into strip dancing or prostitution – or even crimes unrelated to sex acts – too often find society refuses to let them leave their past behind, say backers of a bill passed by state lawmakers and approved by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

LB1132, one of two 2018 anti-sex-trafficking measures favored by the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), lets courts set aside criminal convictions and seal case records when defendants who have completed their sentences can show they were victims of sex trafficking when the crimes were committed.

Without such an option, said NCC Executive Director Tom Venzor, people who have escaped the grasp of sex slavery too often find their efforts dashed when they’re subjected to criminal background checks as they try to get an education, find a job or rent a place to live.

That “deters them from getting basic human needs, and that puts them in a position that they can’t really rehabilitate (themselves) after they get out of human trafficking,” Venzor said. “They shouldn’t have to continue experiencing the effects of sex slavery.”

State senators gave 45-0 final approval to LB1132, sponsored by a group of lawmakers led by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, and Ricketts approved the bill April 18. In a related issue, legislators passed 48-0-1 April 18 and Ricketts approved April 23 a bill that will re-establish state regulation of bring-your-own-drink “bottle clubs.”

Lawmakers rewrote LB1120 to force such establishments – some of which have been accused of featuring female strippers controlled by sex traffickers – to obtain “bottle club licenses” for the first time since 2004. That step also would restore law enforcement’s ability to enter bottle clubs, supporters say.

LB1132, Pansing Brooks said, is the fourth in an annual series of bills the Legislature has passed to crack down on human trafficking and alleviate its impact on victims and the state.

She sponsored or cosponsored laws enacted in 2015, 2016 and 2017 that respectively defined human trafficking in Nebraska law, granted its victims immunity from future prosecutions for coerced crimes and strengthened penalties against traffickers themselves.

She and Venzor said LB1132 addresses the clash between equally human impulses to protect society from criminal activity – including prostitution – and helping people build new lives after being forced into commercial sex or other crimes.

“I’m just so proud of Nebraskans and the Legislature for understanding (the issue) and moving forward and giving these Nebraskans who are truly vulnerable people a shot,” Pansing Brooks said.

Because sex traffickers have been known to peddle teens, LB1132’s provisions include young victims whose criminal cases were handled in juvenile court as well as adult victims sentenced in county or district court. They must have satisfied their legal penalties or been formally pardoned to ask the court to expunge their convictions.

The legislation lists a variety of potential “official documentation” to show that a defendant was a sex-trafficking victim: affidavits or other sworn testimony; copies of government records; financial records of commercial sex activity; emails, texts and voicemails; print or electronic ads “used to promote the (victim) for commercial sex”; and “branding or other tattoos” identifying the victim “as having a trafficker.”

It also directs judges to consider set-aside motions “in camera” — that is, outside public view — and mandates that criminal justice agencies respond to public inquiries about the affected cases “in the same manner as if there were no criminal history record information.” Stephen Patrick O’Meara, a retired federal and state prosecutor and expert on human trafficking, said LB1132 can play a useful role in helping people recover from the trauma of sex slavery.

“I do think there are some situations that could create (legal) questions under LB1132,” namely having to do with judges’ discretion in handling the set-aside motions, O’Meara said. But senators’ comments during floor debate should make their intent clear to judges, he said.

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