Human Trafficking

18 U.S. Code § 1581 - Peonage; Obstructing Enforcement

Human trafficking is a serious federal crime that could result in a lengthy prison sentence if convicted. When human trafficking crosses state or international boundaries, it is typically prosecuted at the federal level. Under federal laws, the crime of human trafficking is defined under 18 U.S.C. 1581-1597

The closely related crime of sex trafficking involves transporting people, often minors under 18, across international borders for prostitution, which is considered a serious offense and a primary target for federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.

Under 22 U.S.C. 7102, The term “commercial sex act” means any sex act on which anything of value is given to or received by any person.

18 U.S. Code § 1581 - Human Trafficking Laws
Human trafficking becomes a federal crime when it crosses state lines or international borders.

The Mann Act makes it a federal offense to transport people across state lines or coerce them to cross state lines to engage in prostitution. Federal prosecutors often use it to indict an alleged perpetrator for human trafficking.

18 U.S.C. 1581 says, “(a) Whoever holds or returns any person to a condition of peonage, or arrests any person with the intent of placing him in or returning him to a condition of peonage, shall be….

(b) Whoever obstructs, or attempts to obstruct, or in any way interferes with or prevents the enforcement of this section shall be liable to the penalties prescribed in subsection (a).”

Simply put, 18 U.S.C. 1581 prohibits human trafficking and related crimes and imposes severe penalties, including life in prison, for anyone convicted of forcing someone to perform labor, sex trafficking of children, child pornography, and selling people.

In sex trafficking cases, victims are typically forced to engage in prostitution to pay back an alleged debt for getting them into the country. Often, underage girls are coerced to work in a brothel where the sex traffickers can control their activity.  

What Does the Law Say?

Sex trafficking under 18 U.S.C. 1591 says, "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age."

Sex Trafficking
Sex trafficking is described as recruiting and transporting people for commercial sex acts.

The United States has international treaties designed to stop human trafficking, forcing another person to work or engage in commercial sex against their will.

The primary federal law is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. It has been expanded since its inception and is embodied in Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Chapter 78.

This federal statute attempts to protect human trafficking victims. It imposes harsh penalties for anyone convicted of violating this law. It allows judges to order defendants to pay restitution to their victims, who can also pursue civil damages against them.

It also makes human trafficking an offense federal prosecutors can charge under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations statute, called a “RICO” violation.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 77 Peonage, Slavery, and Trafficking in Persons has several federal laws related to human trafficking, including the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 1581 – Peonage; obstructing enforcement makes it a federal crime to force somebody into servitude, a form of indentured servitude or debt bondage;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1582 – Vessels for slave trade;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1583 – Enticement into slavery makes it a federal offense to kidnap or hold someone as an enslaved person;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1584 – Sale into involuntary servitude makes it a federal crime to sell another person into involuntary servitude. If serious bodily injury or death occurs, or the offense involves kidnapping or sexual abuse, the defendant could be sentenced to life in federal prison;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1585 – Seizure, detention, transportation, or sale of slaves;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1586 – Service on vessels in the slave trade;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1587 – Possession of slaves aboard vessel;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1588 – Transportation of slaves from the United States;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1589 – Forced labor law makes it a crime to cause somebody to work under threat of harm, physical restraint, or legal retribution;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1590 – Trafficking with peonage and involuntary servitude;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1591 – Sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud, or coercion;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1592 – Unlawful conduct in furtherance of trafficking;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1593 – Mandatory restitution;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1593A – Benefitting financially from peonage and trafficking;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1594 – General provisions;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1595 – Civil remedy;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1595A – Civil injunctions;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1596 – Additional jurisdiction in certain trafficking offenses;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1597 – Unlawful conduct with immigration documents;
  • 22 U.S.C. 7102 – Defines sex trafficking as commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or recruitment, harboring, transportation, or obtaining someone for labor or services, or pressure to subjecting them to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)

Most human trafficking cases involve moving people across a state or international border, which is why it is under federal jurisdiction.

The United States has international treaties to stop human trafficking, such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), passed in 2000, a federal law attempting to protect victims.

It imposes harsh penalties for anyone convicted of human trafficking. It also makes it an offense that can be charged under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute.

The TPVA gives judges the legal authority to order defendants to pay restitution to their human trafficking victims and even allows them to pursue civil damages.

What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 1581?

Suppose you are convicted of a federal sex trafficking crime. In that case, the penalties will vary based on different factors, such as your level of participation in committing the offense. The penalties could include the following:

  • If you played a role in preparing to send sex trafficking victims to the United States, you face up to seven years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
  • If you directly participated in the sex trafficking offense, you face up to 20 years in prison.
  • If you sexually assaulted the victim or forced them to engage in sexual-related activity, you face life in federal prison.

What Are the Defenses Against 18 U.S.C. 1581?

Human trafficking and sex trafficking are considered the most severe sexual-related offense in the criminal justice system. Thus, just an allegation can prejudice a jury, but the prosecutor must still prove all elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

Defenses Against Human Trafficking
Contact our federal defense attorneys for advice.

As discussed below, a federal criminal defense lawyer can use different strategies to obtain the best possible outcome.

Perhaps we can expose weaknesses in the case and persuade the prosecutor to reduce or dismiss the charges. Maybe the evidence against you was unlawfully seized by federal law enforcement agents, which violated your constitutional rights.

Perhaps we can challenge crucial evidence in the case and have it suppressed by the judge. Maybe we can negotiate a favorable plea bargain with the prosecutor if guilt is not in doubt.

We provide legal representation throughout the United States on federal criminal issues. We offer a free case consultation. The Hedding Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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