The recent spate of human trafficking cases in Pinellas County has prompted one defense attorney to remind prosecutors and law enforcement agencies that they should take extra caution when charging those involved in the crime.
Jorge Argulo, who has been representing at least two people who have been charged with human trafficking in the county recently, says that there is a temptation for prosecutors to take one more step and charge those involved with prostitution with human trafficking. He says there is a danger that these cases are more likely to be dismissed when it comes to trial and the public is then less likely to treat the more serious charge of human trafficking so seriously.
The issue of human trafficking has been widely acknowledged as more serious than previously thought in Pinellas County and there have been several cases of human trafficking in young girls and women this year which illustrate the seriousness of the crime in the county.
Human trafficking is something which in most people’s minds occurs when poor or defenseless people are ruthlessly taken from their own countries, often under false promises, or simply abducted, and made to work or provide sex under force elsewhere. The case of migrant workers in the United States may sometimes be a case of human trafficking. However, it appears that the crime is more widespread than previously thought and may involve American citizens preying on the weak and vulnerable in U.S. society.
The Sheriff of Pinellas County, Bob Galtieri, says that there have been recent cases of human trafficking in not only the sex industry but in the food industry and lawn business as well. He acknowledges that he is unsure whether the extent of the human trafficking in the county really has increased in recent years or is simply more widely reported and recognized.
Human trafficking always involves an element of force. The victims of human trafficking may have been literally kidnapped and put to work or made to commit a crime because they have no other choice. Three cases this year illustrate the depth of the problem. In November, a 60 year old woman was charged with trafficking a fostered child of 14 who was forced to have sex with a 25 year old man. The man has been charged with lascivious behavior and sexual battery. In September, a 21 year old woman from St Petersburg was charged with forcing two runaway teenagers to have sex with men in several motels around the county. In May, three people were charged with a similar offense involving supposedly runaway girls.
There has also been a case where three people were charged with human trafficking involving women at a strip club. The women were drugged with cocaine, oxycodone or another drug and then forced to work in a brothel. A 55 year old woman has already pleaded guilty in this case and has agreed to testify against the other two people who have been alleged to have worked with her.
According to Mr. Argulo, the danger is the confusion between prostitution and human trafficking due to the overlap in some cases between these activities.
The executive director of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators, Jeremy Lewis, says that there is a clear distinction between those who are prostitutes and those who are victims of human trafficking. He says that prostitutes knowingly and willingly offer their services in return for cash, while the victims that his association deals with are being exploited by others and may be forced to commit a crime because they have no other choice.