New law tightens bail restrictions for human trafficking defendants

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has signed into law a bill that will make it more difficult for people charged with human trafficking crimes to post bail.

House Bill 1260, which will take effect on July 1, was sponsored by two Democratic delegates, Mike Mullin of Newport News and Dawn Adams of Richmond. Mullin said they were motivated by their professional experiences handling sexual-based crimes, like trafficking.

“Delegate Adams works as a professional nurse who has seen individuals that have been harmed both mentally and physically through sex trafficking, so this is something near and dear to her heart,” Mullin said.

Mullin is an assistant commonwealth attorney in Suffolk, where he focuses on sexual assault and gang-related cases as a member of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations team. He said the law reflects a recommendation of the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force and creates a presumption against bond for defendants being tried for sex trafficking crimes.

According to a 2017 report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking. Among cities, Richmond is ranked ninth in the country with the highest number of calls to the hotline per capita.

“In Virginia, we have a number of things where we presume you’ll be a flight risk and a danger to the community — like, we assume if you’re charged with murder that you will run,” Mullin said. “So what we [the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force] did is create a presumption against bond. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get bond; it just means you have to show a higher standard of why you’re not going to run, whether it’s that you have a relationship with family in the area or that you’ve been living in the area for 15 years.”

Michael Feinmel, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, said trafficking is a crime requiring constant movement. Efforts to curb that movement are necessary since many times defendants use false addresses and traffickers may use the freedom of bond to contact their victims.

“The bonded pimp can contact the commonwealth’s witness and lay on the guilt trip thick: ‘They are trying to send me to prison, and it’s your fault,’” Feinmel stated in an email. “Even those victim/survivors who have acknowledged that the sex trafficker was taking advantage of them still feel some sort of emotional bond to their trafficker, and it makes things even more difficult for them to continue to want to cooperate.”

Though Feinmel said HB 1260 is an important step in addressing human trafficking crimes, not everyone thinks the legislation will do enough.

Natasha Gonzalez, a clinician at the Richmond-based non-profit Gray Haven, which focuses on comprehensive care of human trafficking survivors, said there is more work to be done.

“My role with Gray Haven is being a first point of contact. When we get a call of a potential trafficking victim it’s my job to decide whether or not it’s trafficking, which can be difficult because, for example, domestic relationships and trafficking can sometimes go hand in hand,” Gonzalez said.

A larger issue, according to Gonzalez, is that sex trafficking victims are not likely to contact police because they often fear law enforcement and sometimes are not aware they are being trafficked.

In the Capitol, however, Mullin said he is hopeful that human trafficking will receive more legislative attention in upcoming years.

“There are only a few things that we handle here in the Capitol that are partisan by nature, and this certainly is not one of them. I’ve worked very closely with Republicans and Democrats on this, and the bill came through the House and Senate without a single no vote,” Mullins said. “This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on.”

By Siona Peterous/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.