IN A FLORIDA COUNTY, SEX WORKERS ARE ENSNARED IN ‘TRAFFICKING’ RAIDS
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister’s stings, conducted under the guise of targeting human trafficking, netted the largest number of arrests there since 2008. Sex workers say the operations put them at risk.
On Nov. 18, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister held a press conference to announce the results of Operation Trade Secrets II, a six-month sting that purported to target human traffickers. Flanked on one side by a placard of mugshots and on the other by a video of deputies handcuffing men and women in a hotel, Chronister told reporters that undercover detectives arrested 104 people.
“Like any business, the human trafficking industry boils down to supply and demand,” he said. “I strongly believe that in order to eradicate human trafficking, we must continue to focus on reducing the demand.”
But according to the sheriff’s own data, 28 of the arrests were sex workers charged with prostitution. Sixty-three others were charged with soliciting, a first-degree misdemeanor that, for a first-time charge, can result in one year in jail or a fine of up to $1,000. Though many of the people charged with soliciting in Operation Trade Secrets II were first-time offenders, some have paid fines exceeding $4,000, according to court documents. Others were diverted to a “misdemeanor intervention program” and charged a $75 fee.
Only three people were arrested and charged with human trafficking, defined by Florida law as “transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, enticing, maintaining, or obtaining another person for the purpose of exploitation of that person.”
Luis Colon, 29, and Jason Fitzgerald, 36, were charged with human trafficking after they responded to an online ad posted by an undercover detective who posed as a man selling his teenage stepdaughter, according to the sheriff’s press conference. If convicted, Colon and Fitzgerald face life imprisonment. Both are in jail on bonds of $259,500 and $109,500.
Steven Cook, 29, was charged with human trafficking after a woman told investigators that Cook forced her to have sex for profit. Sheriff’s office spokesperson Crystal Clark wrote in an email to The Appeal that the woman was initially arrested for prostitution, but “in cases such as this, prostitution charges are later dropped by the SAO [state attorney’s office] after someone is proven to be a human trafficking victim.” Despite text messages from Cook that, according to the arrest report, appeared to corroborate the trafficking charge, the state attorney’s office closed the case against Cook after it contacted the woman, and she did not respond.