Trying to help human-trafficking victims get a new start in life, Florida lawmakers in 2013 unanimously passed a bill aimed at helping victims expunge records of crimes they might have committed under duress.
But pointing to an exception in the law, a South Florida appeals court Wednesday upheld a ruling that prevented a woman from shedding the record of a kidnapping charge that stemmed from a time when she was forced to work as a prostitute and recruit other women.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal indicated regret that it could not order expunction of a record for the woman identified only by the initials M.G. But like a Miami-Dade County circuit judge had ruled earlier, the appeals court said it did not have discretion to erase the kidnapping charge.
“While we can certainly sympathize with M.G.’s tragic circumstances and admire her determination in overcoming them, we cannot substitute our judgment for that of the Legislature,” said the 11-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Kevin Emas and joined by judges Richard Suarez and Ivan Fernandez. “The construction of the statute as urged by M.G. must be the result of legislative amendment, not judicial pronouncement.”
Lawmakers in recent years have taken a series of steps to try to help human-trafficking victims, who often are forced into prostitution. The 2013 law was designed to allow victims to ask courts to expunge records of crimes committed while they were being trafficked, but it included an exception for certain types of crimes, including kidnapping.
Wednesday’s ruling said M.G. became a victim of human trafficking in 2007, which led to her being forced to work as a prostitute. A man who ran the prostitution operation also forced her to recruit other women, and if she broke rules, he would “beat her in front of the other women,” the ruling said.,
In 2010, M.G. was forced to befriend another woman to work as a prostitute. The other woman later escaped and said she had been kidnapped, which led to the arrests of M.G. and the man on charges including sex trafficking and kidnapping, Wednesday’s ruling said.
M.G. subsequently entered into a plea agreement in which she pleaded guilty to sex-trafficking and prostitution charges, while prosecutors did not move forward with the kidnapping charge. After serving a sentence, M.G. sought to get all of the criminal-history records expunged. A circuit judge granted the request, except for the record of the kidnapping charge.
In the appeal, M.G.’s attorneys contended that the circuit judge had discretion to grant expunction because M.G. was not convicted on the kidnapping charge. But the appeals court said the state law did not give leeway to expunge that charge.
“We agree with the trial court’s determination that no ambiguity exists, and that expunction of criminal history records related to the offense of kidnapping is precluded by the plain language of the statute,” Wednesday’s ruling said.