No, Sex Trafficking Isn't a Misdemeanor in Maryland

Unless you think all prostitution is sex trafficking...


Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force/Facebook

A four-part series from Capital News Service (CNS) looks at human trafficking in Maryland. The last part, published yesterday, contends that "Maryland has some of the lightest penalties in the nation for human trafficking of adults, which police officers and advocates say draws traffickers into the state." Yet a bill to enhance criminal penalties for human-trafficking offences recently failed to pass the Maryland General Assembly. 

It was a rare moment of legislative sanity on this issue. In recent years, just about any proposal billed as a way to get tough on human trafficking has enjoyed hasty, bipartisan success in states across the country. But as Maryland's failed bill illustrates, these policies are often far from what they're portrayed as by police and mainstream media. 

In this case, advocates for the increased penalties claim that sex trafficking of adults is a mere misdemeanor in Maryland. CNS reports that traffickers who get caught are often back out on the streets in a few hours, and at most they'll wind up with a small fine and a year imprisonment. "We're actually talking to these guys on the street who are trafficking (adults) and they're not even scared of us," Sgt. Deborah Flory of the State Police's Child Recovery Unit told CNS. "They're very aware of what the laws are in certain states they travel to."

So how could I, or anyone, possibly be against increasing the penalties? Because Flory et al. aren't really talking about human trafficking. They're talking about prostitution. Which they want felony punishments for. 

As is stands, using force, fraud, or coercion to compel anyone into sexual activity or performance is a felony offense in Maryland. So is harboring, helping, or benefiting from the prostitution of someone under 18, even when no force or coercion are involved. Both are punishable by up to 25 years in prison and/or a $15,000 fine. 

Meanwhile, "misdemeanor human trafficking" is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000. And what does this category entail? Basically anything at all related to non-forced prostitution except being the one doing the selling or the buying. This includes "taking or causing another to be taken to any place for prostitution" (so, driving a sex worker to a job),  encouraging or "plac(ing) another in any place for prostitution" (recruiting someone into sex work), harboring someone in a place of prostitution (letting a sex worker work from your home or building), "benefiting financially or receiving anything of value" from prostitution (taking money from a sex worker for any reason), or aiding and abetting someone in prostitution in any way.

Sure, all of those activities could also describe actions taken by sex traffickers as commonly understood, but then an element of force, fraud, or coercion would also be involved, and that is already defined as a felony. 

Two other offenses in the misdemeanor category do fall under the traditional purview of human trafficking: convincing someone they'll be physically harmed if they don't take part in prostitution or "a sexually explicit performance," and keeping someone's immigration documents or passport from them so they'll do so. But keep in mind that, though misdemeanors, these activities are still punishable by up to 10 years in prison. What's more, these actions seem to pretty clearly fall under the category of using force, fraud, or coercion to compel prostitution, so these particular charges are most likely things that would be brought in addition to felony trafficking (or abduction, or sexual assault, etc.) charges.