February 24, 2023

Bill gives law enforcement more tools to combat human trafficking

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

After hearing sometimes raw testimony from victims of human trafficking, members of the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee unanimously voted Wednesday in support of a bill that would enact tougher penalties for the crime.

House Bill 445 also would broaden the definition of human trafficking and require those convicted of the crime to register as sex offenders in the state.

In cases in which the trafficking victim is an undercover cop, the bill would prevent suspected offenders from using that as part of their defense to claim they were entrapped. 

The bill’s fiscal impact report says under current law, people convicted of sex offenses in other states who move to New Mexico do not have to register as a sex offender. HB 445 “closes a loophole” by requiring them to register, the report says.

Mark Probasco, deputy director for prosecution for the state Attorney General’s Office, told committee members human trafficking equates to “modern-day slavery,” with roots in the crime dating back to the state’s slave-trading days. 

Committee members voted 5-0 Thursday to move the bill forward to the House Judiciary Committee after listening to several people talk about their experiences as victims of sex trafficking. 

Most, including a 9-year-old boy who testified, did not give their full names. 

One victim who testified, Suetana Jackscon, held back tears as she described how she felt after learning her trafficker had served a short sentence and was back on the streets to possibly prey on others. 

“There is not a day or moment that goes by that this has not affected my life,” she said, adding she often looks over her shoulder for fear “he will come after me.”

The 9-year-old boy, accompanied by his father, told committee members people shouldn’t be able to “just go snatching up kids and harming them.”

Lawmakers briefly discussed the bill before giving it their seal of approval.

Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo, said trafficking “is a cancer that is infecting our state, our nation and our world.”

The bill increases the crime of human trafficking to a second-degree felony from a third-degree felony in cases in which victims are 18 and older and increases the crime to a first-degree felony when victims are under 18.

Under current law, trafficking victims under 16 is a second-degree felony and trafficking those under 13 is a first-degree felony.

Block said if he had his way, he’d add an amendment imposing life sentences on traffickers. 

One of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Elizabeth “Liz” Thomson, D-Albuquerque, told committee members the bill was inspired in part by the case against Jeffrey Epstein. 

Epstein was a wealthy financier and convicted sex offender who authorities say died by suicide Aug. 10, 2019, in a New York City jail cell, where he was waiting for his trial on federal charges accusing him of sex trafficking girls in New York and Florida. Epstein owned a 7,500-acre property in Santa Fe County, where some of his accusers said they were abused. 

A similar legislative effort pushed by Thomson stalled in a Senate committee in 2021.

Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, said she hopes Thomson’s renewed efforts shed more light on the issue and the bill moves forward this time.

It’s unclear how prevalent the crime is nationwide or in New Mexico, as it often goes unreported, Probasco said. 

The Human Trafficking Hotline website reports receiving 51,073 phone calls in 2021 — 364 of them in New Mexico.