(Part 1: What Happens In Vegas… Could Get You 10 Years to Life)
The final Nevada Senate Judiciary hearing of sex trafficking bill AB67 took place on May 28th during the last full week of the regular 2013 legislative session. In contrast to the dominant media portrayal of the bill being a no-brainer to pass to protect women and children from violent pimps forcing them into sexual slavery, the original 39-page (!) bill drafted by the Washington, DC anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project contained numerous problematic sections. One major opposition raised was the potential to severely punish a lot of people consensually engaged in the sex industry who have no involvement in the sex slavery black market.
After extensive revisions from the bill as introduced into the Assembly on February 20th, the Senate hearing was a 3-hour showdown over additional revisions. While everyone agreed that real situations of sexual servitude must be seriously addressed (although there is no valid evidence on the extent of the problem in Nevada), representatives from the Clark County Public Defender’s Office, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nevada, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice (NACJ), Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Las Vegas, and a major Las Vegas Gentlemen’s Club voiced concerns about the potential for violating human rights and wasting limited resources ensnaring innocent people as sex traffickers given the bill’s overly broad definitions and removal of certain defenses for the accused.
Nevada Attorney General (AG) Catherine Cortez Masto who sponsored the bill and Special Deputy AG Brett Kandt continually shot back at those who proposed further amendments saying that they were unnecessary as it was not “the intent” of the bill and to “trust prosecutorial discretion” not to use the law in whatever particular way the amendment aimed to remedy. A tense back and forth ensued with the ACLU of Nevada’s Allen Lichtenstein arguing that the language in the bill should carefully reflect the stated intent as the law’s language is what is used in court for prosecution. What about overzealous prosecutors? Although the legislative intent of AB67 was placed on record, lawyers contended that the courts rarely agree to go to legislative record to determine judicial interpretation when legislation is ambiguous.
While ultimately the committee voted to give the AG the tools provided in a 32-page version of AB67 to go after sex traffickers, serious reservations remained as to how these tools will be used on the ground and against whom. For example, the pandering statute states that it does not apply to the customer of a prostitute; however, the new sex trafficking statute does not include this provision. Tourists come to “Sin City” Las Vegas often thinking that prostitution is legal. (It was quickly pointed out that brothels are only legal in rural Nevada counties and “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”)
As anyone under the age of 18 who engages in prostitution is defined as a victim of sex trafficking under federal law and AB67 disallows the defenses of reasonable mistake of age or consent of a victim to an act of prostitution, what if a 17-year old actively acquires false identification that reads she is 21-years old so that she can work in a Vegas Gentlemen’s Club? What if a tourist solicits a 17-year old for commercial sex in a Vegas club assuming she is 21-years old because she is being served alcohol based on her fake ID? Can the tourist be charged with sex trafficking and sentenced a 5-year minimum mandatory?
AG Masto and Kandt argued that these are far-fetched situations with Masto sharply retorting, “But it is a crime to solicit someone anyway!” First, are these far-fetched situations? Second, opponents responded that
there are already laws on the books to address solicitation and pandering and that great care should be taken to make a marked distinction between those and the severity of the particular crime of sex trafficking with the intent of profiting from sex slavery, especially given the harsh penalties for conviction.
Senate Judicial Chair Tick Segerblom stated that the law will be watched closely for how it is used and revisited as needed next legislative session. NACJ and the ACLU indicated that a constitutional challenge is possible. Stay tuned!