Hit & Run

New Georgia Law Makes Sure Undercover Cops Can Count as Sex-Trafficked Teens

Why bother looking for actual sex-trafficking victims when cops can just pretend to be them and reap the same rewards?


A new sex-trafficking law in Georgia clarifies that undercover cops totally count as minors for purposes of handing out 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentences. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the measure, which is being touted as a crackdown on the sex-trafficking of minors, into law this week. In addition to enhancing the penalties for sex trafficking someone with a developmental disability, House Bill (HB) 770 says that it shall be no defense to charges of sex trafficking of a minor that no such minor actually existed.

Here are the relevant portions of the new Georgia law: 

Georgia HB 770

It's already no defense if a minor willingly chooses to participate in prostitution—something that happens frequently, as the vast majority of teens in the sex trade do not have pimps—or if the minor purports to be over 18 years of age. With the new provisions in place, an undercover cop posing as a pretty 17-year-old girl could friend a young man on Facebook (a tactic cops frequently use in these kind of stings), start chatting with him, and mention that she needs to make money and isn't averse to porn or prostitution but needs help getting started. If the mark offers to help in any way, even just offering a ride or an introduction to someone else who could help her, he will be eligible to receive a minimum of 10 years in prison and up to 20 years, plus a $100,000 fine. Prosecutors can invoke asset forfeiture to take even more from him, and add another "human trafficking" arrest to their press releases. 

One might object that people shouldn't help 17-year-olds get involved in the sex trade. Fair enough. But let's not forget that many of the men cops target with these kinds of stings are only in their late teens or early 20s themselves (i.e., not an age group known for the best judgment, nor an age group that would see age 16 or 17 as terribly young), do not bring up the idea first, and think they are talking to someone who is determined and eager to get involved in sex work anyway. Even if you believe this is still unconscionable behavior, is it really the sort of thing that someone should get a mandatory 10 years in prison for? Aren't we supposed to be in an era of stopping overcriminalization and getting serious about criminal-justice reform? 

It's not just those targeted by undercover cops who suffer here, however. One 2014 study by the anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope International found that 50-60 percent of police efforts aimed at stopping "child sex trafficking" by cracking down on potential clients involved no actual victims or minors at all, just cops pretending to be teens and men who agreed to pay them for sex. If there are really as many minor sex-trafficking victims out there as advocates, cops, and politicians would have us believe, how can they justify spending half of their time and money pretending to be victims rather than saving them? With a finite amount of resources available, that's what's truly unconscionable. 

The answer, of course, is that they claim these men would go on to pay for sex with real minors, or help real minors start in prostitution. Perhaps. But most evidence indicates otherwise. In the john stings, for instance, most of the men merely start out looking to pay for sex, not pay for sex with a teen. Yet, then, a "teen" shows up. These are mostly crimes of opportunity—men who opt not to turn down a mature-looking older "teen," not men seeking out 14-year-olds for sex. But just like law enforcement has been known to lure young men into "terrorist plots" and "drug dealing" schemes, then speak of and charge them as some sort of criminal masterminds, we're beginning to see more and more anti-human-trafficking activity focus on creating sex criminals rather than finding them.