Legislature votes to end trafficking defense – ‘I didn’t know how old she was’

Padden crimes-against-minors bill heads to governor’s desk

OLYMPIA – Washington lawmakers Thursday passed a bill eliminating a line of defense in human trafficking prosecutions: “I didn’t know how old she was.”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said his crimes-against-minors bill makes it easier for prosecutors to seek longer sentences when victims are underage.

“This really closes a loophole in Washington law, and allows a more effective prosecution of traffickers,” said Padden, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “We don’t want them to get away with saying they didn’t know how old their victims are.”

Senate Bill 5813 cleared the state House Thursday by a 97-0 vote and moves now to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. The measure passed the Senate 48-0 on March 8.

Trafficking crimes frequently involve prostitution and other sexually explicit activities, often with young women as victims, but they also can involve other acts involving control and servitude. Penalties are often higher when victims are underage. The measure prevents traffickers from claiming they did not know the child was under age 18, or that they mistakenly believed the victim was older.

The bill also imposes longer sentences for possessing or dealing in child pornography.

Padden noted that he has worked closely with Shared Hope International in developing human trafficking legislation. The Vancouver, Washington-based organization was founded by former Congresswoman Linda Smith to combat trafficking crimes. “They’ve done a great job of creating awareness of human trafficking, and they have helped change the way we think about these crimes,” Padden said.

Smith, the organization’s president, explained, “Even when strong trafficking laws are in place, trafficking offenders may avoid serious penalties by claiming they didn’t know the child’s age. Sen. Padden’s Senate Bill 5813 ensures that protections for children are not undermined and promotes successful prosecutions. We applaud the strong bipartisan effort in the Washington Legislature to combat human trafficking. As one of the first states to achieve an ‘A’ under the Protected Innocence Challenge, this bill represents how Washington state has led the country in closing gaps in protections for child sex trafficking victims.”