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McDonnell signs law to fight human trafficking

Raises penalties, drops victim testimony requirement

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell shakes hands with Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Annandale Democrat, after signing sex trafficking legislation into law on Tuesday. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell shakes hands with Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Annandale Democrat, after signing sex trafficking legislation into law on Tuesday. (Barbara L. Salisbury/The Washington Times)

Sex traffickers in Virginia can now be prosecuted even if their victims dont testify against them under a new law signed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell on Tuesday.

The law, contained in a package of legislation aimed to thwart human trafficking, expands penalties for sex traffickers by upgrading the offense to a class-two felony punishable by 20 years to life imprisonment and a fine up to $100,000. The law expands the definition of abduction to include commercial sexual activity involving minors, among other things.

Mr. McDonnell held a ceremonial signing of the legislation at Washington Dulles International Airport — an international hub that provides an entrance point to the United States for sex traffickers.

"What were talking about here is a vile and despicable offense for one person through drugs, extortion, forced fraud or some other means to exert an unconstitutional dominion over another person and force them to do things that are horrible and degrading and uncivil," Mr. McDonnell said. "Thats why this is so important."

Until now, sex traffickers have been prosecuted in Virginia under charge of abduction — which requires a victim willing to testify. But the nature of sex trafficking means that victims are often unwilling to speak out against the person who provides their only livelihood, said Loudoun County Sheriff Steve Simpson.

"This is a situation where the only means of support they have is the person who brought them from some other country and sold them into slavery," Mr. Simpson said. "Theyre not going to testify against the guy whos their bread and butter, so to speak."

Mr. Simpson said sex traffickers in Loudoun County have most often been found running massage parlors where the owner is licensed but workers are not. By the time law enforcement officers learn of illicit activity, the businesses have often vacated the building. He said he's seen an increase in those types of cases over the last few years.

"We need to be able to interfere with that," Mr. Simpson said. "We need to be able to charge the person whos running the outfit."

Co-sponsoring delegates Vivian E. Watts, Annandale Democrat, and Timothy D. Hugo, Clifton Republican, said the new law sends a no-tolerance message to sex traffickers.

"It says to people who would abuse our children, who would traffic our children, you are not welcome in Virginia," Mr. Hugo said.

Until now, Virginia was one of only a few states lacking a comprehensive law against human trafficking, according to the advocacy group Richmond Justice Initiative. Mrs. Watts said the new law puts Virginia in a much stronger position to prosecute offenders.

"The message I want to send out loud and clear to law enforcement is that Virginia has very tough laws and we want to make sure anyone engaged in trafficking sees that we do," she said.

Passing with broad and bipartisan support, the package of legislation also includes bills that direct the Department of Criminal Justice is to begin training local law enforcement on human trafficking and the Department of Social Services to develop a plan to help victims. Mr. McDonnell also signed a resolution designating Jan. 11 as a day of awareness of global human trafficking.

Statistics on sex trafficking in Virginia are largely unavailable and estimates of how much sex trafficking occurs in the U.S. vary broadly. According to the U.S. State Department, more than 20,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. each year, mainly to enter the sex trade.

One available indicator is a hotline operated by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Virginia ranked 10th out of the states for calls received on the hotline from 2008 to 2011, Mr. McDonnell said.

"The unfortunate reality is sex trafficking is still alive and well in America and were doing something about it in Virginia that makes a difference," he said.

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