OLYMPIA -- The state Senate on Friday unanimously passed two bills aimed at fighting child prostitution by expanding the criminal definition of human trafficking and allowing police to record telephone calls involving underage victims when the victims give consent.
Sens. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, and Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, collaborated to bring the bills to the Legislature to combat what they said is a serious problem in Washington.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates more than 15,000 people are trafficked into the country each year and forced into prostitution or manual labor. Washington is believed to be one of the top human trafficking destinations.
"We know that our state is one of the most vulnerable in the country for human trafficking crimes due to our close proximity to Asia, our international border and our numerous public ports," Kohl-Welles said. "This legislation will go far in continuing our efforts to end this modern-day form of slavery and helping prosecution efforts to bring criminals participating in the illicit trade to justice."
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Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg said Friday that trafficking in child prostitutes isn't an everyday occurrence in the Tri-Cities, but police see it often enough to be concerned.
"We do encounter situations where underage children are working as prostitutes," he said.
The peddling and solicitation of underage prostitutes locally primarily takes place over the internet -- on sites like Craigslist -- rather than on the streets, he said.
And the crime often goes unreported.
"It's one of those things where oftentimes they refer to it being a victimless crime, but it's not because children are victims," Hohenberg said.
Hohenberg said he liked Delvin's surveillance bill -- Senate Bill 5545 -- because it doesn't further victimize minors who are caught up in sex trafficking.
The bill allows law enforcement to use a minor as a cooperating witness in an investigation, but only by electronic or telephonic communication with the suspect.
"We never want to put child victims at further risk, but if they are willing to cooperate in an investigation they should be able to do so in a way that protects them," Delvin said. "This bill lets predators know that if they target our children, we, as a state, will give law enforcement every tool in the box it needs to hold these criminals accountable."
Current law prohibits police from employing minors in sex trafficking investigations. It also prohibits police from recording conversations without the consent of both parties on the call.
Delvin's bill would provide an exemption to the state's two-party consent requirement to allow police to listen in on and record conversations with people suspected of underage sex trafficking when the victim consents.
Police would have to have probable cause to believe the conversation involves underage sex trafficking to make a recording.
Prior approval by a judge would not be required, but it would have to be approved by a police officer above the rank of line supervisor. A record of that authorization would have to be submitted to a judge within two days, and a notice of the recording would have to be sent to the other person recorded.
Hohenberg said being allowed to record conversations would help lead to more successful prosecutions of people trafficking in underage prostitutes, and more convictions would lead to a safer community.
"I think it's a great bill," he said.
Kohl-Welles' definition bill -- Senate Bill 5546 -- expands the definition of human trafficking to include forced labor, involuntary servitude, commercial sexual abuse of a minor and criminal sex acts, as well as illegal harvesting or sale of human organs.
A second bill introduced by Kohl-Welles would authorize a portion of a $10 recording surcharge paid to county auditors to be used to fund housing for human trafficking victims and their families. That bill -- Senate Bill 5482 -- hasn't made it to a Senate floor vote.
The surveillance and definition bills now go to the House for consideration.