Bipartisan bill seeks minimum mandatory sentences for human trafficking in Colorado

SB24-035 passed out of the Senate, heading to House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday
Colorado State Capitol
Posted at 7:08 AM, Mar 12, 2024

DENVER — A bipartisan bill in Colorado's state legislature wants to enact mandatory minimum sentences for perpetrators of human trafficking, while extending the statute of limitations for adult human trafficking survivors.

SB24-035 passed out of the Senate on a vote of 33-1. The bill is expected to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

The bill would classify human trafficking as a Per Se Crime of Violence, which are subject to enhanced sentencing or increased penalties. Following an amendment made in the Senate, the bill added an affirmative defense for victims who can prove they were coerced or forced into engaging in human trafficking while they were being trafficked.

“We need to make sure that we protect those people, and that the district attorney doesn't charge them for human trafficking when they're the victims," one of the sponsors of the bill Sen. Byron Pelton, R- District 1, said.

The statute of limitations for adults who were trafficked would be increased from three years to 20 years if the bill passed. It would not change the unlimited statute of limitations for minors who endure human trafficking.

“We are the ones that suggested this bill, because of what we see in our human trafficking unit," Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said. "We could use more attorneys, more investigators, because we can't even handle all the cases that get reported... We certainly know that it's prevalent in Denver and the surrounding metro area.”

According to McCann, mandatory minimum sentences would be implemented as part of SB24-035. She said if the victim is an adult, the mandatory minimum sentence would be ten years. For a child victim, the sentence would be 16 years.

“Right now, these cases are probation eligible and that's the biggest issue because someone could get probation for human trafficking, and that just sends a message to the victim that, 'Hey, this isn't serious, the guy's going to be out,'” McCann said.

There is an amendment expected Tuesday that would only apply mandatory minimum sentences to cases that involve a weapon or serious bodily injury, according to McCann.

Jenelle Goodrich, the founder and executive director of From Silenced to Saved, is concerned the amendment could limit the law's potential power.

“When it comes to the serious bodily injury, that's a very hard thing to prove. Most of these victims aren't even allowed to go get medical attention when they do get seriously injured, so the ability to be able to prove that from medical records is slim to none. So, it becomes kind of a moot point," Goodrich said.

Goodrich supports the bill, saying the extension of the statute of limitations is long overdue.

“The trauma bonds that are created through that brainwashing, they [victims] need more time to get themselves in a place to where they can actually heal, understand what's happening to them, to come forward to disclose, so they can get justice for what was done to them," Goodrich said. “I do believe that human trafficking is a crime of violence. We think violence has to be physical, punching, hitting, weapons, anything like that. But violence also incites fear, and they don't need to touch someone physically, one time, to incite fear.”

Rebekah Layton is a survivor of human trafficking who opposes the bill.

“I experienced human trafficking as a teenager in downtown Denver," Layton said. “I did not really fully comprehend my situation as being considered the legal definition of human trafficking until probably about a decade after my situation.”

Layton wishes the bill was split into two pieces of legislation, because she supports the extension of the statute of limitations for adult survivors of human trafficking. However, she is concerned by the mandatory minimum sentences and affirmative defense for victims.

“This potential victim has not only gone through an incredibly traumatic experience of being trafficked, and of coming forward, and potentially being a witness in that case and reliving and reliving and reliving. Now, they also have to prove to a judge, to a court, that they were actually a victim of this thing all over again," Layton explained. “Say a victim is able to prove that they were a victim and they win the affirmative defense case. They don't get charged. They don't serve time, but their arrest record remains present. So if they're in an immigration proceeding, that arrest record is discoverable. And it's not likely that in an immigration proceeding that that's going to be seen very favorably.”

Layton also said relying too heavily on the criminal justice system can have unintended consequences.

“Anytime we add a mandatory minimum, it takes jurisdiction away from a judge. We see this locally and we see it across this nation, the victims of multiple forms of violence are getting caught up in that," Layton said. “Our overreliance on the criminal justice system and the criminal legal system is inevitably going to cause more harm to multiple marginalized communities, folks who don't meet the mold of the perfect victim. There's so many things that can happen and be weaponized with this bill as it stands.”

Denver7 reached out to the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar for a statement on SB24-035, and received the following response:

The Colorado Criminal Defense Bar opposes the version of SB24-035 that came out of the Senate, but we will change our position to neutral once an anticipated amendment is adopted to (1) eliminate the language making the human trafficking charges per se crimes of violence, and (2) expand the affirmative defense.

This sensible change will allow judges discretion at sentencing to consider mitigation, particularly when a survivor of human trafficking is charged with this crime themselves. It will also allow survivors who can prove they have been trafficked themselves the opportunity to present the affirmative defense to a jury at trial.

This change will still allow the prosecution to charge a crime of violence in cases involving death, serious bodily injury, the use of a deadly weapon, or the possession and threat to use a deadly weapon, consistent with other statutory crimes of violence.

We appreciate the consideration of bill sponsors and advocates as we worked on this important compromise.
Colorado Criminal Defense Bar

Bipartisan bill seeks mandatory minimum sentences for human trafficking in Colorado

D7 follow up bar 2460x400FINAL.png
The Follow Up
What do you want Denver7 to follow up on? Is there a story, topic or issue you want us to revisit? Let us know with the contact form below.