War of Words

In October 2010, eighteen-year-old Dallas Cardenas was indicted and found guilty of the following charges: trafficking a child, pimping an adult, pimping a child, pandering a child and inducing child prostitution. Champions of the movement to end human trafficking rejoiced – this was one of the few successful prosecutions for human trafficking under Colorado laws since their enactment in 2006.  The victory, however, was short-lived.  A few weeks ago, the Colorado Court of Appeals overturned Cardenas’s conviction for the trafficking of a child. The reasoning given by the Court centered on the difference between selling a child’s sexual services and the selling of an actual child.

In this case, the current Colorado statute states a person commits trafficking if he or she “sells, exchanges, barters or leases a child” in exchange for something of value. As a result, the Court looked to the ordinary meaning of the verbs, all of which involve the transfer of a right of ownership or possession. Applying the rules of grammar, the court went on to state that the direct object of these verbs is “a child” and not a child’s sexual services. For Cardenas to be guilty of this crime, he would have to transfer the physical or legal custody of the child. By the language of the statute, Cardenas’s actions did not qualify as trafficking. Nowhere in the legislative history was there any support for a Congressional intention to define trafficking as the selling, barter, exchanging or leasing of a child’s sexual services.

No matter how we may feel about the defendant’s innocence or guilt on this issue, the Court of Appeals of Colorado could not uphold a conviction of Cardenas for the trafficking of a child under the current human trafficking statutes. The results of this case provide glaring support for House Bill 14-1273, which broadens the language as to what actions constitute trafficking of a child for sex. Under the new Bill, trafficking for sexual servitude includes the actions of selling, recruiting, harboring, transporting, transferring, isolating, enticing, providing, receiving, obtaining, maintaining or making available a minor for the purpose of sexual activity. While these verbs are not defined within the statute, their combined plain meanings would undoubtedly encompass Cardenas’ action of selling the sexual services of the victim. House Bill 14-1273 is currently under consideration by the Colorado legislature. The Cardenas case is a powerful reminder to those drafting the bill that the war is in the words and statutory language must be carefully constructed to exact the intended result.

Learn more at Jennifer Carty’s Human Trafficking Center article: War of Words: Statutory Interpretation in Cardenas


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