The News Service of Florida
By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 30, 2013..........Victims of human trafficking will soon have a legal path to expunge records of crimes they were forced to commit in Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed a pair of bills (HB 1325 and HB 1327) that take effect Jan. 1, creating a legal process for human-trafficking victims to get their criminal records expunged --- typically for prostitution charges.
The process would only apply to crimes committed while the victims were being forced, threatened or coerced.
"They need to have their criminal records expunged and removed so they can move on and have gainful employment," said Robin Hassler Thompson, senior policy analyst at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.
The bills are part of the Legislature's increasing efforts to combat human trafficking in Florida, the third most-common U.S. destination for traffickers. Lawmakers passed the first bill criminalizing human trafficking in 2004 and last year consolidated trafficking laws into one statute. They also increased the penalties.
The bills signed Thursday passed both chambers unanimously. They stemmed from a strategic plan developed in 2010 by the FSU Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. The center studied the experiences of trafficking survivors, and Hassler Thompson cited the example of a sex trafficking victim who, after a life of forced prostitution, wanted to study nursing.
"What's going to happen to her when she goes to get her (nursing) license and has a conviction for prostitution on her record?" Hassler Thompson said. "That kind of episode has happened all around the state and all around the nation."
The legislation wouldn't erase criminal records completely, and victims with expunged records would still have to divulge them if applying for jobs with a state or criminal justice agency, school or other facility for vulnerable Floridians.
"It's encouraging that we're holding the perpetrator accountable instead of the individual who's being victimized," said Leisa Wiseman, director of communications and government affairs for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Both chambers also unanimously passed a bill (HB 7005) that would crack down on shady massage establishments that are fronts for sex trafficking. The bill would prevent the operation of massage establishments between midnight and 5 a.m., although it has exceptions for businesses such as health facilities and hotels that might offer massage services. The bill also would prevent people from living in massage establishments. It hasn't yet gone to the governor's desk.
"As a police officer, I knew this was an emerging crime in Florida," said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth and the sponsor of HB 7005. Kerner, an attorney who also has worked as a police officer, said he'd been to massage establishments where "we knew what was going on," but that law enforcement officers had no legal grounds. "Their hands were tied."
Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse in St. Petersburg, said her shelter has housed victims of human trafficking, some of whom were brought to the U.S. as mail-order brides. Expecting to be married, "she became either a household slave or a prostitute or whatever he had in mind for her," Osmundson said.
And without the legal right to sign a lease or apply for work, she added, a victim might turn to more crime or return to her abuser.
Hassler Thompson said she hopes Florida's next step will be to post contact information to report human trafficking in hotels, restaurants, bars and other common places where victims are held. Many such crimes take place in public, but the public doesn't recognize the signs.
Getting the word out isn't something that can be legislated, Kerner said, "But I think passing these laws sends the message that everyday members of society should be aware this is going on."