Combating sex trafficking requires new and innovative thinking in today’s internet age. Because of websites like Craigslist and Backpage, it is easier than ever for those who traffic in sex to find clients. While simpler for the perpetrators, it has become increasingly difficult for law enforcement to find criminals and identify victims of human trafficking. The internet is a vast and rapidly growing organism and it is often impossible to determine whether a woman is choosing prostitution or being forced to have sex against her will. To effectively combat human trafficking, state legislatures must enact legislation making it easier for law enforcement and Department of Justice officials to gain information from websites and force deletion of illicit ads advertising sex with trafficked persons in exchange for money or other valuable goods.
Sex trafficking has been a persistent problem in Nashville, Tennessee. In May of this year, a federal jury returned verdicts in a trial of members of the Somali Outlaws and the Somali Mafia gangs. The indictments charged the defendants with transporting minor Somali and African American women from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Nashville for the purpose of having the women engage in sex for money, and for conspiring to sex traffic juveniles.
After a three-week trial and five days of deliberations, the Justice Department reported that the jury was able to conclude the following with respect to each defendant:
“Ahmad Abdulnasir Ahmad a/k/a Fabulous, 25 . . . was charged in counts one and two, which charge conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor. Ahmad was found not guilty of both counts. . . . Musse Ahmed Ali a/k/a Fat Boy, 25 . . . was charged in counts one and two, which charge conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor. Ali was found not guilty of both counts.
“Faduma Mohamed Farah a/k/a Barnie, 27 . . . was charged in counts one and two of the indictment with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of a minor. Farah was found not guilty of both counts. . . . Idris Ibrahim Fahra a/k/a Chi Town, 24 . . . was charged in counts one, two, twelve and thirteen of the indictment. Counts one and two of the indictment charged sex trafficking of a minor. Count twelve charged the sex trafficking of Jane Doe Two. Count thirteen charges the attempt to sex traffic Jane Doe Two. Fahra was found guilty of count one and count twelve and not guilty of counts two and thirteen. Proof at trial established that Fahra rented an apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota in which Jane Doe Two and others were taken for the purpose of sex trafficking. At that time, Fahra was 19 years of age and Jane Doe Two was in the 7th Grade. At this apartment, persons would arrive and pay money to have sex with Jane Doe Two and others. Fahra also received the benefit of being able to engage in sex with Jane Doe Two for free. Count One provides for a penalty of up to life imprisonment. Count twelve provides for a penalty of ten years to life imprisonment.
“Fatah Haji Hashi, a/k/a Jerry, 24 . . . was charged in counts one, two, twelve and thirteen. Hashi was found not guilty as to all counts. . . . Dahir Nor Ibrahim a/k/a Dahir Lucky, 41 . . . was charged in counts one and two of the indictment. Ibrahim was found not guilty as to all counts. . . . Andrew Kayachith a/k/a AK, 22 . . . was charged in counts one, two, twelve and thirteen of the indictment. Kayachith was found guilty as to count one and not guilty as to the remainding counts. Count one of the indictment charges sex trafficking of a minor. Proof at trial established that Kayachith transported Jane Doe Two in his vehicle for the purpose of sex trafficking, which included the exchange of liquor and marijuana for sex with Jane Doe Two. Count one provides for a penalty of up to life imprisonment.
“Yassin Abdirahman Yusuf a/k/a Junior, 22 . . . was charged in counts one, two, twelve and thirteen of the indictment. Yusuf was found guilty as to count one. Count one of the indictment charged sex trafficking of a minor. Proof at trial established that Yusuf was involved in the sex trafficking of Jane Doe Two in May 2007 as well as April 2009. Yusuf traveled with Jane Doe Two to Nashville, Tenn. in April 2009 for the purpose of engaging in sex trafficking of Jane Doe Two. Count one provides for a penalty of up to life imprisonment. Mohamed Ahmed Amalle a/k/a DK, 24 . . . was charged in counts one, two, twelve and thirteen of the indictment. Yusuf was found not guilty as to all counts.”
As a case study, Nashville illustrates the difficulty both of finding trafficked persons and of amassing sufficient proof to punish those who use the internet to traffic minors for sex. Operation Broken Silence and End Slavery Tennessee conducted a study entitled The Nashville Backpage Report to raise awareness about the ways in which criminals use the internet for commercial sex businesses and human trafficking.
Backpage, a website similar to Craigslist but with an adult content section, allows users to browse classified ads and contract to purchase sex anonymously through the internet. The 2012 study found that, during the three-month window in which the study was conducted, 2,051 unique ads were placed advertising sex in the Nashville area. The average price of sex ranged from $154-216 (for in-call versus out-call) and the average age of the women, as reported by the ads’ creators, was 25, although researchers suspect the women’s average age actually was much younger.
Sex trafficking and trafficking in minors is illegal in Tennessee according to T.C.A. § 39-13-307-311. Trafficking in sex is a class B felony unless the “victim of the offense is a child under fifteen (15) years of age, or where the offense occurs on the grounds or facilities or within one thousand feet (1,000′) of a public or private school, secondary school, preschool, child care agency, public library, recreational center, or public park,” in which case it is a class A felony.
Kathy Hines, a former VICE officer in Detroit and volunteer with End Slavery Tennessee, calls for the law to reflect the current internet age, for websites like Backpage to shut down such ads completely.
Legislatures should adopt legislation permitting DOJ officials, upon a proper showing of proof that women are being trafficked against their wills, to require sites like Backpage to delete content advertising sex with those women. Legislatures also should require sites that are subject to investigation for allegedly hosting advertisements for sex with trafficked persons to disclose information about the sites’ users that could lead investigators to victims and perpetrators of human trafficking.
Such legislation likely would not impermissibly restrict speech in violation of the First Amendment if not overbroad because, like child pornography, there is no legal or permissible use for such advertisements. See New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747, 102 S. Ct. 3348, 73 L. Ed. 2d 1113 (1982). Unregulated prostitution is illegal in all 50 states; prostitution of any kind is illegal in every state but Nevada. In cases involving human trafficking and trafficking in minors for sex, the state interest is so compelling, and the possible value of the speech so low, that the state may and should regulate websites as a means to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes.