Bodies of Evidence: The Challenges of Substantiating Human Trafficking - Aylstock, Witkin, Kreis & Overholtz

Bodies of Evidence: The Challenges of Substantiating Human Trafficking

Apr 10, 2019

Human trafficking occurs in almost every country in the world, claiming millions of victims, and netting billions for traffickers. Yet only a small percentage of perpetrators are held accountable in courts of law. According to global statistics cited on, in 2016 only 14,894 traffickers were prosecuted, while a mere 9,071 were convicted. Human trafficking is not a blameless crime. Trafficking operations generally rely on intricate and widespread networks of individuals and businesses that claim, transport, lodge and perpetuate the exploitation of trafficking victims. Given the systemic failure of holding these offenders accountable for their serious crimes, it is no wonder that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services distinguishes human trafficking as the fastest growing criminal industry.

While the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law that establishes ways to prosecute human traffickers and protect victims, went into effect in 2000, it has been challenging for individuals and agencies working to combat trafficking to even prove its existence. Trafficking is a covert operation; in an effort to fly under the radar, traffickers hide and isolate their victims, often moving them from place to place. Victims of trafficking may utilize motel rooms for commercial sex for a few days, but by the time suspicions are raised, they are gone, having been moved by their captors to a new location. Motel employees complicit in the exploitation of victims may feign ignorance when confronted with allegations of trafficking activity.

Investigations into human trafficking often lack a key component: the victim. Due to the often complicated relationships between traffickers and their victims, people who have been exploited do not always see themselves as victims of trafficking. For example, a man may establish himself as a woman’s boyfriend before becoming her pimp; the woman, having endured a lifetime of abusive relationships, may continue to identify as the man’s girlfriend, viewing her exploitation as another form of the abuse she has always endured. Further, many trafficking survivors fear the police due to their own vulnerabilities, such as their non-citizen status. They may also understand that they have committed a crime and dread the consequences from law enforcement. This last point, in particular, is not an unfounded fear: victims who report their exploitation may be arrested for their participation in illegal activity. This is frequently the case in sex trafficking: police misidentify trafficking victims as prostitutes and hold them accountable for this alleged crime. Reporting their abuse may also endanger trafficking victims and their families. Traffickers use actual and threatened physical force to coerce their victims into compliance and silence.

Every state in America has laws against human trafficking. However, there can be major discrepancies between the content and application of these statutes. Since trafficking is a movable target, law enforcement officials and prosecutors often find themselves working across a number of jurisdictions and agencies. The logistical and financial burdens of these endeavors may affect investigators’ willingness to take on trafficking cases. This dearth of cases contributes to a lack of precedence, which in turn creates challenges for prosecutors pursuing human traffickers.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to substantiating and eliminating trafficking is society’s tendency to dismiss, minimize or rationalize the exploitation of human beings. We see this in the case of Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who has been charged with soliciting prostitution at a day spa in Jupiter, FL. The women who worked in that spa are thought to be victims of sex trafficking. While many people have expressed outrage at Kraft’s involvement – charges which he denies – a number of high-profile commentators have defended the billionaire’s actions. But like all incidences of sexual assault, sex trafficking is not about desire; it is about power. In their opinion piece for USA Today, Shea M. Rhodes and Jamie L. Pizzi cite a Cook County, Illinois study that illuminates the power dynamic at play in sex trafficking: “…those who buy sex are mostly white, educated and employed. Those who sell sex, by contrast, are more like to be of color, coerced into prostitution under the age of 20, and struggling with mental illness.”

Human traffickers and their network of supporters, including the businesses who support their criminal enterprises and individuals who pay for their services, prey on the most vulnerable members of society, exploiting their victims’ lives for power and profit. Our attorneys are committed to addressing the epidemic of human trafficking. If you or someone you know has been victimized by trafficking, please contact us to discuss how the civil system can help you fight for accountability and justice.

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