Trafficking laws

Federal laws

In 2000, Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protections Act of 2000.  It was reaffirmed a few times, the latest being in 2013.
The federal Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA, 2000) defines human trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for one of three purposes:

Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Pub. L. No. 106
386, 114 Stat. 1464.

The TVPA was passed to prevent human trafficking, referred to as a ‘contemporary manifestation of slavery’, to guarantee just and effective punishment of traffickers and to protect the victims. Human trafficking is also referred to as trafficking in persons.  The TVPA specifically addresses trafficking into the sex trade and involuntary labor by force, fraud or coercion.

Historically, state laws have been inadequate to deter trafficking because of loose definitions of involuntary servitude.  States have even refused to support victims, instead they could be treated as criminals, denied necessary health services, and in some cases incarcerated or fined for performing illegal acts, like prostitution, while under duress from threats of violence or worse.

Section 11 addresses health risks.

(11) Trafficking exposes victims to serious health risks. Women and children trafficked in the sex industry are exposed to deadly diseases, including HIV and AIDS. Trafficking victims are sometimes worked or physically brutalized to death.

The TVPA intends to secure the inherent dignity and worth of all people guaranteed in U.S. constitution.  It seeks to federalize the criminality of all type of slavery and involuntary servitude.  It protects victims from prosecution for illegal acts committed while enslaved or coerced into involuntary servitude and it authorizes victim support and restitution.

Classes of offenses under federal law



Maximum prison term[1]



Life imprisonment (or death)


25 years or more


Less than 25 years but 10 or more years


Less than 10 years but 5 or more years


Less than 5 years but more than 1 year



1 year or less but more than 6 months


6 months or less but more than 30 days


30 days or less but more than 5 days

State laws for human trafficking

In 2003, Washington became the first state to criminalize human trafficking.  Currently every state has laws with criminal penalties for human traffickers.  Definitions of traffickers, what evidence is needed to find traffickers guilty and penalties vary amongst the states.  Most states define trafficking as a felony but it varies from a 1st degree or Class A to 3rd degree or Class C felony charges.  Most states have harsher penalties for trafficking minors. 

The Polaris project rates individual states by the legal framework that combats human trafficking, punishes traffickers and supports survivors. States are rated by their implementation of the following 10 factors:

    1. Sex trafficking provision
    2. Labor trafficking provision
    3. Lower burden of proof for sex trafficking of minors
    4. Training requirement and/or human trafficking task force
    5. Post harboring hotline
    6. Safe harbor; protecting sex trafficked minors
    7. Victim assistance
    8. Access to civil damages
    9. Vacating convictions for sex trafficking victims

2014 State Ratings on Human Trafficking Laws

11 states and DC, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Michigan, West Virginia, Rhode Island and Maine, have failed to make minimal efforts to pass laws that support victims.

Variations in State laws

It is important to know your own state’s trafficking laws. What is posted in this course is current as of February 2018, but human trafficking has quickly evolving legal issues. There will be additions that modify the laws, so far by increasing the severity of punishment and specificity to prevent lack of justified prosecution.

Most states in their definition include involuntary servitude involving sex acts and/or labor. Many states specify harsher penalties for trafficking of minors, mentally or physically handicapped individuals and the use of drugs to increase compliance of victims. These are generally a Class A or level 1 felony. Some states add increase penalties if the trafficker has a felony record already, has been involved in trafficking for a specified length of time – usually more than 30 days, and has severely abused the victims. Illinois for example raises a felony charge to a level X, which may have a prison term of up to 60 years, in the following description.

Aggravating factors. A violation of this Section involving kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated criminal sexual assault or an attempt to commit aggravated criminal sexual assault, or an attempt to commit first degree murder is a Class X felony.

This is Arizona’s description:

It is illegal to recruit, entice, harbor, transport, provide or obtain by any means another person with the intent of causing the other person to engage in prostitution by force, fraud or coercion. There is a separate and higher sentencing structure for traffickers that increases the presumptive sentence:

Florida raises the trafficking penalty for commercial sexual activity from a first-degree felony to a life felony when the crime is committed against a person who is “mentally defective or mentally incapacitated.

In Michigan one count of human trafficking is a felony punishable by up to 20 to 40 years in prison.,4601,7-154-59886_76917---,00.html

Some states also require sex traffickers to register as a sex offender restricting them not to live within 1,000 feet of a school.

Businesses that enable trafficking

Many states now have laws that provide sanctions against an individual or a business which enables trafficking of persons for forced labor. Here’s the law in Massachusetts that addresses this;

…. a business entity that commits trafficking of persons for forced labor services to be fined up to $1,000,000. The state also holds any business that knowingly aids, or is jointly involved in, labor trafficking civilly liable.

It is not always easy to sanction companies who advertise for the human trafficking. The firm of Ropes & Gray in Boston as one of their pro bono cases filed another petition with the U.S. Supreme court in June 2017 regarding the lawsuit Jane Doe v. LLC. Ropes & Gray is representing three child sex trafficking victims against which is said to transmit internet advertisement for commercial sex. This case was turned down in 2016 by the U.S. Supreme court and by the District Court of Massachusetts in 2014. This time a U.S. Senate investigation’s revealed that Backpage alters sexually explicit advertisements that involve children, making them complicit in enabling human trafficking. Here are some of the horrors that were perpetrated on the victims acquired through these advertisements.

Jane Doe No. 1 was a victim of sex trafficking starting in November 2013, when she was 15 years old, sold for sex to men across Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. She was raped over 600 times over the course of four months. The second plaintiff, Jane Doe No. 2, was sex trafficked for three years starting in 2013 when she was 14 years old in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Over those three years, she was raped thousands of times. The third plaintiff, Jane Doe No. 3, was sex trafficked when she was 15 years old in Massachusetts and Florida.

There is a documentary that describes this case called I am Jane Doe. Here is a link to the movie trailer.

More and more states are enacting laws to protect and aide the victims. If a victim is forced into prostitution the states can establish laws that either prevents prosecution for prostitution by the victim or vacates such a conviction. It can provide safe harbors for the victims. Also, more and more states enable victims to sue their trafficker and/or the business that contracted to use victims of trafficking.

Some states prohibit public disclosure of the names of minor victims. Child protective agencies can terminate parental rights of parents who have sold their children into servitude or trafficked them themselves.

The degrees of punishment for traffickers varies from state to state. In South Dakota, as of this date, forced sex is only a class 6 felony which is a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment with a maximum fine of $4,000. In Texas, under the continuous smuggling of persons penal code, if it is a child under 18 it is a felony of the first degree, punishable by imprisonment for life with special circumstances or for any term of not more than 99 years or less than 25 years.

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Kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated criminal sexual assault or an attempt to commit aggravated criminal sexual assault, or an attempt to commit first degree murder is a Class X felony in Illinois.