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What is Human Trafficking Under Federal Law?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 29, 2022

Human trafficking, also known as Trafficking in Persons, or TIP, is a serious federal crime that may result in lengthy prison sentences upon conviction. Every state has laws penalizing human trafficking, including California under Penal Code 236.1 PC.

However, when the act crosses state or international boundaries, or if the crime is exceptionally expansive or egregious, it is typically prosecuted at the federal level.

What is Human Trafficking Under Federal Law?

Human trafficking frequently involves transporting people across international borders to engage in sexual activity. Any type of human trafficking is, of course, illegal and carries harsh legal penalties.

However, sex trafficking cases are considered especially egregious, and federal law enforcement and prosecutors will aggressively investigate and pursue convictions for these types of crimes, especially when they involve minors.

Under the Mann Act, it's a federal crime to transport anyone across state lines or coerce them to engage in prostitution. Federal prosecutors often use the Mann Act to penalize perpetrators participating in human trafficking, and this type of federal offense carries harsh penalties.

A typical scenario includes a situation where someone from a foreign country is recruited to come into the United States for employment opportunities. The traffickers will help them gain access into the country by assisting them in avoiding border agents.

Once across the international border, they will tell them they must work to pay for their expenses, but it usually includes sexual activity in exchange for money, i.e., prostitution.

In sex trafficking cases, the victims are typically forced to engage in prostitution to pay an alleged debt. They are frequently underage girls coerced to work in a brothel where the traffickers can maintain control over their activity. Our federal criminal defense attorneys will examine this topic in more detail below.

Overview of Federal Human Trafficking Laws

The United States has several international treaties that are designed to stop human trafficking offenses, which is the act of forcing another person to work or engage in commercial sex against their will.

Federal Human Trafficking Laws

The primary federal law addressing this issue is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, which has been expanded and reauthorized several times since its inception and is also embodied in Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Chapter 78.

This federal statute attempts to protect victims of human trafficking and lays out severe penalties for anyone convicted of violating this law.

The TPVA gives the judge the discretion to order a defendant to pay restitution to their human trafficking victims, who could also pursue civil damages against the defendant.

Further, it also makes human trafficking an offense that federal prosecutors can charge somebody under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations statute, known as a “RICO” violation.

Specific crimes of human trafficking and their penalties are detailed in Title 18 of the U.S. criminal code. The TVPA identifies two broad categories of human trafficking: sex trafficking and labor trafficking (i.e., modern-day slavery).

What is Sex Trafficking?

Sex trafficking, under 18 U.S.C. 1591, is defined as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act in which "the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age."

In other words, the law makes it a federal crime to coerce anyone, adult or child, into commercial sex acts through "force, fraud, or coercion," but for minors under age 18, it's a crime to induce them to commit commercial sex acts by any means.

If convicted of federal sex trafficking, the penalties will vary depending on different factors, such as the level of participation.  For example, if the federal prosecutor can prove the defendant directly participated in the sex trafficking offense, they can be sentenced to up to 20 years. 

What is Labor Trafficking?

Labor trafficking under 22 U.S.C. 7102 and 18 U.S.C. 1590 is defined as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery."

The criminal code breaks this form of human trafficking down even further into other specific crimes:

  • Peonage, under 18 U.S.C. 1581, makes it it's a federal crime to force someone into servitude to resolve a debt, a form of indentured servitude or debt bondage;
  • Sale into involuntary servitude, under 18 U.S.C. 1584, makes it a federal crime to sell another person into involuntary servitude or bring someone into the country for that purpose; Involuntary servitude effectively refers to servitude under threat, meaning the victim believes harm will come to them or their loved ones if they do not comply;
  • Enticement into slavery under 18 U.S.C. 1583 makes it a federal crime to kidnap or hold someone as an enslaved person or otherwise entice them into a condition where they will be enslaved;
  • Forced labor, under 18 U.S.C. 1589, makes it a crime to cause someone to do work under threat of harm, physical restraint, or legal retribution.

What Are Some Examples of Modern-Day Human Trafficking?

  • Example 1: A man hangs out on the streets in an area where runaways are known to congregate. He targets teenage girls who need food and shelter and offers to "help" them by providing them with job opportunities. The "opportunity" is to enter a prostitution ring. Even if no coercion is involved, i.e., the girl can say no and walk away, the man is guilty of sex trafficking because he enticed a minor to enter the sex industry.
  • Example 2: A man finds himself in debt to a loan shark. To repay the debt, the loan shark forces him to work long hours at very little pay in a factory he owns. The conditions are deplorable, and the woman is not free to leave until the debt is paid. The man is a victim of labor trafficking, and the loan shark is guilty of a federal crime.

What Are the Penalties If Convicted?

Federal law treats human trafficking very seriously, so a conviction for even one of these federal crimes can result in long mandatory minimum sentences—and aggravated instances, up to life in prison. The penalties include:

  • A conviction for peonage, involuntary servitude, or forced labor can result in up to 20 years in prison;
  • for enticement into slavery, the penalty can be up to 30 years;
  • Sex trafficking of adults carries a minimum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment, but if the victim is under 18, the judge may impose enhanced penalties of up to life imprisonment.

In addition to these sentences, the judge may impose stiff fines and require the defendant to pay restitution to their victims.

What Are the Best Defenses for Human Trafficking?

Sex trafficking cases are considered one of the most severe sexual-related crimes in the federal criminal justice system. Thus, just an allegation that you were involved in the sex trafficking of minors can prejudice a jury.

Best Defenses for Federal Human Trafficking Charges

Still, like all criminal allegations, the federal prosecutor must prove the crime's elements beyond a reasonable doubt. You will need a defense lawyer with the experience to identify and attack weaknesses in the case.

Your defense attorney also must be familiar with federal laws and procedures, which are pretty different than a state-level prosecution. Put simply, we might be able to legally challenge crucial evidence in the case.

We might be able to negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a lesser offense or persuade them there is insufficient evidence to convict you, which could result in the case being dismissed.  If guilt is not in doubt, we are skilled negotiators that might be able to reach a favorable plea bargain.

Eisner Gorin LLP, located in Los Angeles, California, serves people across the United States against any federal offense. Contact us by phone at (877) 781-1570 or use the contact form.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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