Cops and Courts, News

Human trafficking an ongoing concern, even in W.Va.

W.Va. — The words “human trafficking” have generated a lot of buzz in West Virginia since January, when the Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office helped raise awareness of the issue.

In this series, we will examine the nuances of the human trafficking trade: its definitions, its controversies and its place in the lives of West Virginians.

Human trafficking, according to assistant U.S. Attorney General Andy Cogar, can boil down to three words: force, fraud or coercion. Cogar is co-chair of the West Virginia Taskforce on Human Trafficking.

“The state law is a little bit more complex than the federal law in terms of the definitions,” he said, “but really, when you boil down both the state law and the federal law down to their essence, they are very similar. The state law doesn’t use all the terminology the federal law uses that I would like to use in defining human trafficking for clarity’s sake, but it’s virtually the same. I don’t think there’s any meaningful distinction on human trafficking in what is in the state law and what is in the federal.

Cogar said the best way to understand human trafficking for both state and federal law is the application of “force, fraud or coercion to cause someone to engage in labor services or commercial sex.”

“That being said, there are all different forms of compulsion,” he said. “What I’ve been telling folks to kind of demystify human trafficking is that the working definition, and probably the most practical way to understand human trafficking, is simply compelling another person to provide labor services or commercial sex.”

“There’s lots of iterations of what that looks like, both in sex trafficking and labor trafficking and the forms of compulsion that are used. But, at bottom it’s of some kind of form of compulsion. Now, by the bottom line, by and large on the state side that compulsion takes the three major sides of force, fraud or coercion.”

Cogar said these three sides can be used in labor trafficking or sex trafficking to obtain a service from someone under compulsion.

“Force is, as the term connotes,  the exertion of physical power,” he said. “That may or may not be physical force that’s applied, in terms of an assault or maybe physical restraint. It could be the exertion of force to prohibit contact of a victim with the outside world. So, it might be isolation. It might be detention.

“Fraud is just another way of saying deception, and again, that can take a lot of different forms both in sex trafficking and labor trafficking. In labor trafficking, it often looks — one example, I should say, is an employer luring someone from overseas to come work for his or her business with the false promise that if you work for me for $1 a day, hypothetically, for six to eight months, then I’ll make sure you get a green card.”

Cogar said the person is lured here under false premise and is therefore considered trafficked.

“On the coercion side of things, it can be much more broad,” he said. “It can be, in effect, the manipulation of some kind of psychological or physiological vulnerability. It could be extortion. It could be blackmail. It could be the use of addiction to manipulate or compel someone to engage in commercial sex or labor services.

“It could also be threats. Threats to the victim or their family. So, I step back and look at human trafficking and it all still boils down to this element of compulsion to provide labor services or commercial sex.”

Cogar said he wanted to stress that this is in reference to adult trafficking.

“When it comes to the sex trafficking of minors, we don’t have to show force, fraud or coercion to establish that as a crime,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a child prostitute. I think that’s something important to underscore, especially when talking about familial trafficking. If you have a minor that is being sex trafficked or provided for commercial sex. Even if that’s Uncle Joe giving dad a case of beer to borrow his daughter for a night — that’s sex trafficking, and Dad and Uncle Joe can both be prosecuted for that. Either in state court or in federal court.”

Cogar said in 2017, the West Virginia legislature passed an amendment to the state code to change the law that required more than one victim in a year’s time to qualify as trafficking.

“That was a huge development for us because it made the state code, by in large, consistent with the federal code in that particular respect and with other respects as well,” he said. “Now it can be just one victim and it can be within any time frame.”

Morgantown  Police Officer Troy Ball works as a victim advocate for the Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC) along with his law duties. He said trafficking is increasing in West Virginia.

“There’s an increase all over the state from trafficking outside of the state,” he said. “The U.S. Attorney’s office has made public service announcements regarding that. There are other agencies. I think the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Resources has made statements regarding that. So, I think that may be statewide.

“My definition would be the textbook definition. Whether it’s sex traffic or labor trafficking, it’s someone else performing acts or doing work and a third party is reaping the benefits of it, and it’s being done under coercion of some sort, whether it’s threat of physical harm or withholding something that they need.”

Cogar said part of the learning curve for police officials and the public is that human trafficking has only been codified as law for about two decades.

“So, it’s not common nature, or it’s not second nature I should say, for police officers to look at a situation, like they would with assault or domestic violence, certain white-collar crimes and so on — it’s not second nature for them to say, ‘Oh, that looks like human trafficking.’

“Instead, they might say it looks like child abuse. It looks like prostitution. That looks like a labor violation. It looks like anything else but human trafficking.

“Again, human trafficking is in the broad scheme of things in Western Civilization, even though it’s always existed. We’ve only called it human trafficking and codified it as a specific unique crime for only a short period of time. So, that’s a challenge for us.”