Hands of a missing kidnapped, abused, hostage, victim woman tied up with rope in emotional stress and pain, afraid, restricted, trapped, call for help, struggle, terrified, locked in a cage cell.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Strengthen Colorado’s Human Trafficking Laws Despite House Alterations

Human trafficking, particularly involving children, has been a contentious topic at the state Capitol this year. However, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has managed to strengthen the state’s laws by agreeing to a compromise that involved giving up a major provision but ultimately ensuring the passage of a proposal.

On Tuesday, the Senate agreed to withdraw its objections to changes the House made to Senate Bill 35 and sent it to the governor for signing, despite some reservations about the House’s alterations. This decision came with strong criticism directed at the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, including accusations that the organization is harming victims in Colorado.

Senate Bill 35 aims to extend the statute of limitations for human trafficking of adults to 20 years. The bill was sponsored by Sens. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Byron Pelton, R-Sterling. In the House, it was sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, and Assistant House Minority Leader Rep. Ty Winter, R-Trinidad.

Initially, the bill also sought to classify human trafficking as a crime of violence. This provision faced challenges in the House. The Senate Judiciary Committee, during the bill’s passage through the Senate, added a caveat to its crime of violence language. Sen. Dylan Roberts, D-Frisco, explained that crimes of violence typically involve physical violence or the use of a deadly weapon, whereas human trafficking generally does not. It is a crime of manipulation, he told the Senate a week ago.

The language in the bill regarding crimes of violence could mean that a district attorney would rarely charge a human trafficker with that sentence enhancement, as weapons or physical violence are almost never involved. The senators’ solution was to make the crime eligible for the sentence enhancement.

The bill passed the Senate with a 33-1 vote, supported by all 22 district attorneys in Colorado, the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and other victims’ rights organizations. However, it encountered significant changes in the House Judiciary Committee on March 12. The most notable change was the revision of the bill’s second page, which included the sentence enhancement language, and the addition of affirmative defenses for victims charged with trafficking.

Charging a victim with a human trafficking crime never happens, according to Roberts, whose legal background includes working in the district attorney’s office in Eagle County. At least one House sponsor was unhappy with the judiciary committee changes. “We had to make concessions” to get the measure out of the committee, Winter said on Wednesday. “This is a good first step.”

He outlined the bill’s provisions: involuntary servitude would now carry a sentence of 10 to 32 years; involuntary servitude of a child would be 16 to 48 years; sexual servitude of an adult would carry a sentence of 10 to 32 years, and for a child, 16 to 48 years. “We made big sweeping changes” to the law with this bill, Winter said. “This is the kind of message to send from the General Assembly.”

The bill then returned to the Senate, where it received a less than warm welcome. Initially, the sponsors asked the Senate to concur with the House amendments. This prompted Roberts to request that the Senate reject those amendments and move to a conference committee. He expressed “extreme displeasure” with the House’s modifications to the bill. “They made concessions in the judiciary committee that are bad public policy and render the bill a disservice to victims,” Roberts claimed. “They used the victims’ names in their advocacy for those changes,” he said, adding that he found that offensive.

The bill improved as it progressed through the Senate, he said, but the removal of the potential for enhanced sentencing under the crime of violence statute was his main concern. Under current law, offenders typically serve no more than 30% of their sentence, meaning a four-year sentence could result in just one year served. Offenders then return to trafficking, Roberts said. He alleged that the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar influenced the bill’s changes, resulting in the removal of the crime of violence enhancement under the pretext of protecting victims.

The House refused to consider the conference committee idea and voted to adhere to their version of the bill last week. Rather than letting the bill die, the Senate conceded and adopted the House version on Tuesday. “There’s been a lot of thought and effort on this bill, and there’s still a lot of good things in the bill,” Pelton told his colleagues. “There’s been a lot of consternation on both sides.”

Roberts remained dissatisfied. “I am very disappointed,” he said, adding that the House version significantly weakens the bill, making it less victim-friendly and more defendant-friendly. He acknowledged the positive aspects, such as extending the statute of limitations, but emphasized that the bill should not be lost over that. He directed strong criticism at the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, stating, “This Senate has sent many criminal justice bills, pro-victim, to the House that continue to be weakened by the House Judiciary Committee.” A good lawyer, such as a Castle Rock criminal defense attorney, would know how to properly fight for human trafficking victims even in light of this legislation.

The Senate voted 26-9 to approve the House amendments and 35-0 on final approval. The bill is now headed to Gov. Jared Polis for his signature.


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