July 22, 2019

Court watchers said growing media attention has changed public understanding of sex trafficking, including the perception of women who were once seen as sex workers, now being recognized as victims.

When Colorado attorney Beth Klein brought her first civil case involving sex trafficking to trial more than 10 years ago, she was met with apathy from the jury and the case ended in a defense verdict.

“In our first trials, people were like, ‘who cares. This is just a hooker who chose this,’” she said. “When I was talking about human trafficking back in 2007, they just thought it was weird.”

Klein, however, was testing legal theories that have slowly and steadily gained momentum over the past decade to the point where sex trafficking litigation—both criminal and civil—is routinely capturing national attention.

Florida attorney Michael Dolce of Cohen & Milstein, who leads the firm’s sex trafficking and abuse practice, said the increased awareness also helped those being abused to understand that they have been the victim of trafficking.

“Many human trafficking victims are starting to come to the realization that they are victims,” Dolce said. “For a very long time we treated them as prostitutes. We kept them from recognizing that they’re victims.”

Dolce also noted that trying these cases have their own challenges.

Oftentimes, defenses center around arguments that the victim was a willing participant working as a prostitute or a stripper, but Dolce said juries are increasingly receptive when they are given the fuller picture.

“I have confidence when I get in front of a jury that I’m going to be able to educate them, to pass that initial ingrained reaction. You tell the whole story,” he said. “These stories are tragic, but they reveal the truth. These young people are not in control of their lives.”

Damages can also be difficult to portray, he said.

“These injuries are psychic. Most predators don’t leave a mark, so how do you show the grievousness of that injury?” Dolce said.

Dolce and Bezar both also stressed that the psychological trauma victims have endured further set trafficking cases apart from other types of torts, where sometimes there are safety concerns for the victims and even the process of litigating claims could re-traumatize the victims. They, and others, cautioned that this is not a practice attorneys should enter lightly.

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