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Human trafficking bills pass state Senate

Michigan State Capitol - Senate Chamber
David Marvin
Michigan State Capitol - Senate Chamber

A bill package passed Thursday in the Michigan Senate could mean human trafficking survivors would no longer have to appear in court to provide a statement against their alleged perpetrator.

The legislation would make statements that trafficking survivors give outside of court, currently inadmissible as evidence because they are considered hearsay, admissible in some cases.

State Senator Rosemary Bayer (D-West Bloomfield) spoke in favor of the bills ahead of the Senate vote Thursday.

“We have the opportunity today to change the system to get some of the worst criminals we have off the street, save people from a horrific life of degradation, violence, and slavery,” Bayer said.

Michigan law already has a hearsay exception for domestic violence survivors.

The new bill package would extend that, and immunity protections during testimony, to human trafficking survivors.

Bayer said the exceptions allow domestic violence survivors to participate in a trial without having to see their perpetrator face-to-face.

“In trafficking and prostitution, we have the opposite problem. The hearings fail. The trafficker goes free. And the detectives arrest them again,” Bayer said.

All three bills in the package passed the Senate with full support. During the committee process, they received the backing of the state attorney general’s office.

In a statement, Attorney General Dana Nessel called the potential changes “long-awaited reforms.”

“It will also provide Michigan law enforcement officers and prosecutors with additional tools to help prosecute those who engage in this heinous, criminal behavior. I applaud the Senate for passing this critical legislation,” Nessel’s press release read.

The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence was also generally supportive of the bills, backing Senate bills 515 and 516, which outline the hearsay exceptions.

Regarding immunity, coalition policy attorney Heath Lowry said his group had some concerns about the state not being able to guarantee immunity from federal prosecution for any admissions during testimony. But he acknowledged those potential situations could be rare.

Aside from that, Lowry mentioned the possibility that not requiring a survivor to be present in court could potentially lead to a situation where prosecutors move forward with a case without a survivor’s consent.

“There’s no additional protections provided in these bills to avoid that sort of situation. Some may argue that it may allow it to happen otherwise. But this also does allow survivors who want to see prosecution but don’t want to testify in court to also provide that sort of support to the prosecution,” Lowry said.

Lowry encouraged lawmakers to continue putting survivors at the forefront of any policy discussions.

The package now heads to the House of Representatives.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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