Human Trafficking in Pennsylvania, Part II: Legislation, and a Recent Case

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by: Judy Hale Reed, Staff Writer

Earlier this month, the Judge Ambrose in the Western District of Pennsylvania accepted a plea from a Hill District man charged with human trafficking. A Pittsburgh police vice detective discovered that the man was prostituting two women, a minor and an adult, here in Pittsburgh. It was not, according to publicly available information, gang or organized crime activity. According to the federal human trafficking law passed in October 2000, severe forms of trafficking in persons includes “sex trafficking in which . . . the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” 22 U.S.C.A. § 7102(9)(A) (West 2013). “The term ‘sex trafficking’ means the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” 22 U.S.C.A. § 7102(10) (West 2013). “The term ‘commercial sex act’ means any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.” 22 U.S.C.A. § 7102(4) (West 2013). This includes photographs and videos as well as acts.

This is the first human trafficking case filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania; according to the University of Michigan School of Law Human Trafficking Database, the Middle District and the Eastern District have each heard three cases. One of those cases involved a police officer who plead guilty to sex trafficking of minors, in other words, profiting off of the rape of children.

Two questions arise regarding this new Pittsburgh case. How can minors be prostitutes, when minors cannot consent to sex? And why was this small case in federal court, when there is a Pennsylvania anti-trafficking law?

First, while minors cannot consent to sex, they can be charged with prostitution in most U.S. jurisdictions, including Allegheny County. In Pennsylvania, minors over the age of 16 can consent to sexual activities, and minors aged 14-15 can give limited consent. “But the way the law is written and applied in Pennsylvania,” according to Gregory Greene, Supervisor for Special Services Unit in the Allegheny County Juvenile Court, “at any age, even under age 16, minors can be charged with prostitution.”

How is it possible for minors, who cannot consent to sex, to consent to prostitution? U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan, speaking at a recent symposium on Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania, said that the sex trafficking of domestic minors is very common in Pennsylvania. “We have indicted about a dozen pimps in the last twelve months, and we have not even scratched the surface.” The usual set up is an older “boyfriend” who, “within a few days, romantically sweeps a girl off her feet and then traps her into forced prostitution and addiction.” These so-called boyfriend traffickers “take the girls on circuits through different cities and states, to keep the girls disoriented, and to prevent law enforcement from figuring out what is happening.” They often use or other online sites, where men share information about prostituted girls and women. While this phenomenon is widespread, it is often not organized crime, but rather dis-organized or opportunistic crime.

Now for my second question; because this case involved one perpetrator with two victims, identified initially by a Pittsburgh police vice detective, why was it not prosecuted under the state anti-trafficking law?

Senator Greenleaf, one of the sponsors of existing Pennsylvania anti-trafficking law, noted at the same symposium that the anti-trafficking statute is focused on labor trafficking, and does not explicitly outlaw human trafficking for sexual exploitation. [pullquote]“This makes it difficult to bring an action,” Greenleaf said, “but one in three runaways are sex trafficked, or forced into prostitution, within 48 hours of leaving home. And the crime is ongoing; it happens over, and over, and over.”[/pullquote]

In addition, as Duquesne Law Professor Rona Kitchen pointed out, “federal charges often result in stronger penalties than state charges.”

The Pennsylvania crimes code provides that “[a] person commits an offense if the person knowingly traffics or knowingly attempts to traffic another person, knowing that the other person will be subjected to forced labor or services.” 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3002 (West 2013). While the definitions section defines “forced labor or services” (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3001 (West 2013)), it does not explicitly address any form of sexual exploitation, unlike the United Nations Convention and federal anti-trafficking laws. The Pennsylvania statute does provide that forcing another person to perform labor or services by attempting, causing, or threatening physical menace, causing fear of bodily injury, or retraining or threatening to restrain a person. (18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3001(1), (2) (West 2013)).

However, the first, and only, conviction under Pennsylvania’s anti-trafficking law was for a case very similar to the case heard by the Judge Ambrose last week. In 2012 in Delaware County, Assistant District Attorney Pearl Kim won a conviction for three traffickers who exploited a U.S. minor girl through forced prostitution. This is a persuasive precedent for not only using the Pennsylvania anti-trafficking law to prosecute local traffickers, but also using it to ameliorate the brutal suffering of Pennsylvania girls. In addition, Attorneys Kim and Morgan both shared ways to corroborate victims’ stories, including use of the traffickers Facebook pages, to compensate for the risk that victims would recant testimony due to the coercion and manipulation of their trafficker “boyfriends.”

Senators Greenleaf and Leech have co-sponsored a comprehensive bill that would not only make it easier to prosecute crimes of sexual exploitation of adults and minors, but would also provide statewide prevention and victim service measures. Senator Greenleaf estimates that Senate Bill 75 will pass in a few months, once everyone implicated in this extensive proposed law has a chance to comment and get on board. Representative Cox introduced a companion bill, House Bill 1417, in August 2013. The Joint State Government Commission’s Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking bases both bills on a comprehensive report. These bills are intended to “make the law clearer, while also making it more aggressive,” according to Frank Sniezek, Policy Director, Office of State Representative Jaret Gibbons, Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 10th Legislative District.

If you would like to support anti-trafficking efforts in Pennsylvania, you could contact your state legislators and ask them to support passage of S.B. 75 and H.B. 1417.


Ms. Hale Reed is a 3L who has worked on anti-trafficking efforts at the community, state, and national level in the Washington state, Pennsylvania, and the Republic of Moldova. She is recently attended a Villanova Law School Symposium, “Abolishing Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Pennsylvania: A Plan for Action.”

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