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House passes human trafficking legislation

In this file photo, Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, participates through video link in a debate on the House floor. She is co-sponsoring a bill intended to address human trafficking. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Legislation intended to make it easier to prosecute cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation won overwhelming approval Monday in the state House and now heads to the Senate.

Supporters of the measure, House Bill 56, said it would help prosecutors hold adults accountable if they force teenagers or other young victims into prostitution, in addition to increasing the penalties for human trafficking.

The proposal would bar the defense from arguing that a human trafficking suspect’s intended victim was an undercover officer posing as a child, that a young victim had consented or that the defendant didn’t realize how young the victim was.

A person convicted of human trafficking would also owe restitution to the victim equal to value of the victim’s forced labor.

The measure also includes extra protections for victims of human trafficking, supporters said, to ensure they aren’t charged as accessories to the crime if they were forced to participate.

“It takes criminalization of the victim out of the process,” said Rep. Elizabeth Thomson, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill. “We don’t want victims to be further traumatized.”

Rep. Georgene Louis, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said human trafficking victims cut across demographic lines and that cases surface across the state. Some victims, she said, are lured by false promises of work, only to be trapped in forced labor.

Human traffickers, Louis said, may threaten their victims with deportation or engage in violence to keep them in line.

“Human trafficking can happen in any community,” she said.

The House passed the bill 63-3, sending it to the Senate with 3½ weeks left in the session.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat who voted against the bill, raised a variety of technical questions about how the proposal would interact with other laws, such as kidnapping, and whether it would conflict with the Constitution.

“It’s important that we get it right,” Maestas said.

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