Senators Feinstein, Portman Want to Expand Wiretapping Authority to Combat Sex Trafficking

By | November 20, 2014

Sen. Dianne Feinstein
(D-Calif.) is once again attempting to swell federal power and
erode civil liberties by preying on fears about sexual
exploitation. Today, she and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced the Combat Human Trafficking Act, a
bill that would expand federal and state wiretapping authority,
mandate that the Department of Justice (DOJ) spend more time
investigating and prosecuting buyers of sex acts from
trafficking victims, and increase criminal penalties for buyers by
legally defining them as human traffickers.  

What could be so bad about going after those who buy sex from
trafficked individuals, especially sex-trafficked minors? For one,
the bill doesn’t require a buyer
to know that an individual has been trafficked
or is under 18 years of age to be criminally liable. But, more
broadly, the bill seems largely aimed at additional encroachments
on American privacy and expansion of federal law enforcement
power. 

Sen. Portman said the legislation “sends a clear message to
those who victimize children that we will prosecute you to the full
extent of the law.” But we already have plenty of laws available to
prosecute those who sexually victimize children. Purchasing sex
from a minor should absolutely be illegal—and it is! But what do we
gain by now defining all individuals who do so as sex
traffickers?

We’ll get more people in prison, I guess—if anyone who purchases
sex from a 16-year-old is now a human trafficker, not just a
statutory rapist, they’ll be subject to a 10 year mandatory minimum
sentence. Somehow this seems more punitive than public
safety-oriented. (Also, expensive.) 

We’ll also get the DOJ poking around more in the affairs of
anyone involved in buying or selling sexual services. Under the
bill, “the Attorney General shall ensure that Federal law
enforcement officers are engaged in activities, programs, or
operations involving the detection, investigation, and prosecution
of individuals” who “obtain, patronize, or solicit a commercial sex
act involving a person” who has been trafficked.

Under the best of circumstances, this is going to lead to
increased harassment of (willing) sex workers and enhanced
monitoring of any space where they congregate. But by playing a
little loose with the definition of trafficking (as
anti-prostitution crusaders are wont to do), the bill also provides
a potential direct mandate for DOJ to target sex workers and their
clients. 

But isn’t arresting child sex traffickers and rescuing
trafficking victims worth it? It’s a worthy endeavor,
certainly. It’s also one that DOJ is already empowered to do. This
bill doesn’t make it more possible for DOJ to fight traffickers, it
uses fighting trafficking as a guise for giving federal and state
law enforcement more power. 

Here’s a more detailed look at what the Combat Human Trafficking
Act would do, from a Feinstein press release:

  • Clarify that a buyer of a commercial sex act from a trafficking
    victim can be prosecuted under the commercial sex trafficking
    statute (18 U.S.C. § 1591)
  • Make a seller or buyer of a sex act strictly liable, with
    respect to the victim’s age, if the victim is under the age of 18,
    thereby sparing child victims from having to testify and be
    re-traumatized
  • Establish a minimum period of five years of supervised release
    for a person who conspires to violate the commercial sex
    trafficking statute (§ 1591), thereby making conspirators subject
    to the same term of supervised release as those convicted of
    attempting to violate the statute or of violating the statute.
  • Require the Bureau of Justice Statistics to prepare an annual
    report on the number of arrests, prosecutions, convictions and
    lengths of sentences regarding sex trafficking offenses prosecuted
    in state courts.
  • Direct the Department of Justice to ensure that each anti-human
    trafficking training program it offers includes training on
    effective methods for investigating and prosecuting the buyers of
    sex acts, and to ensure that federal law enforcement officers
    investigate and prosecute such individuals.
  • Expand federal and state wiretapping authority to cover all
    human trafficking offenses, specifically peonage, involuntary
    servitude, forced labor, child sexual exploitation, child
    pornography production, slavery and involuntary servitude.

Feinstein’s press release justifies these moves
thusly: 

Human trafficking is a $32 billion industry worldwide, making it
the second largest criminal industry behind the drug trade. The
U.S. Department of Justice estimates that up to 83 percent of sex
trafficking victims are American citizens, and the average victim
is first trafficked between ages 12 and 14. According to the
California Department of Justice, California is one of the top four
destination states for trafficking victims.

Yes, they’re actually claiming that American citizens make up
all but 13 percent of global sex trafficking victims.
It’s a bold move even within the typically-dubious realm of sex-trafficking
statistics
 (the idea that the average victim
is first-trafficked at 12-years-old
 is also suspect). None of these stats are
sourced. 

Unfortunately, this is the latest in a string of dreadful
bipartisan efforts from Feinstein, who earlier this year introduced
the “Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation” (SAVE) Act with
Republican Sen. Mark Steven Kirk. (Ill.). That bill also exploits
sexually-abused children to push unconstitutional expansion of
federal law enforcement power. A wide range of trade an activist
organizations oppose the SAVE Act, which they describe as
creating “new and draconian federal criminal liability for websites
and other online services that host content created by third
parties,” while raising “serious free speech and privacy concerns”,
driving “truly bad actors—the traffickers—underground and
overseas”, and “subjecting wholly innocent individuals to potential
criminal liability for unknowingly running afoul of this sweeping
law.”

Category: Liberty
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