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Bill targets prostitution customers with tougher penalties

Imran Ali, director of the East Metro Sex Trafficking Task Force, testifies April 12 before the House public safety committee on a bill, sponsored by Rep. JoAnn Ward, right, to increase the penalties for patrons of prostitution. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Imran Ali wants the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee to remember one number from Thursday’s meeting: 8,204.

“In 2016 and 2017 law enforcement around the state … have been these doing sting operations where they communicate with people posing as if they are a minor and 8,204 unique suspects during this time were identified,” said Ali, a Washington County prosecutor and director of the East Metro Sex Trafficking Task Force.

“They didn’t do an advertisement every single day,” he continued. “There were only 51 stings in those two years, but that’s 8,204 times that somebody woke up and decided it was OK to purchase a human being, 8,204 times where someone started their day with this form of sexual exploitation, and 8,204 times when the benefits in their mind outweighed those risks.”

Rep. JoAnn Ward (DFL-Woodbury) sponsors two prostitution-related bills to address a problem that can ruin so many lives. Both were held over for possible omnibus bill inclusion. Neither has a Senate companion.

“We are trying to change behaviors,” she said.

HF4140 would increase the fine from $500 to $750 for first-time patrons of prostitution and create a felony penalty for someone convicted of patronizing a prostitute within 10 years of a prior conviction. HF3955 would allow a patron’s vehicle to be forfeited if it is used in any way — including getting to or from the scene — to commit a prostitution offense.

According to Karen Kugler, an assistant Ramsey County attorney and designated prosecutor for the Minnesota Human Investigative Trafficking Task Force, current forfeiture law requires the act to occur in the vehicle.

“Why would we not take away the central tool that these people use to get to the place where they’re going to commit the crime,” she said. “We need to cripple their ability to commit this crime. One of the big things we can do is to forfeit the vehicle. That punishment is a very, very strong motivation.”

Rep. Eric Lucero (R-Dayton) asked what happens when “these scumbags” use someone else’s vehicle during commission of the crime.

Kugler said judges can rule for no forfeiture if it’d be a hardship to members of the family. “It’s not an automatic absolute,” she said.

To further showcase the propensity of prostitution, a different pair of numbers presented may have been just as startling.

A criminal intelligence analyst at the Washington County Attorney’s Office who works with the task force, Aimee Schroeder counted the number of commercial sex advertisements in the Twin Cities metropolitan area on Backpage.com. She found 74,273 in 2016 and 99,968 last year.

“In January 2017, Backpage shut down their adult section and we thought these numbers would decrease. However, they just moved under the dating and massage sections,” Schroeder said, adding other new websites and phone applications emerge daily.

“(These bills) send a message that for those who purchase a human being there are now serious penalties and consequences for their actions,” she said. 


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