Debate Over How to Stop Sex Trafficking Puts Focus on Car Services

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Several advocates for sex trafficking victims are pushing the City Council for legislation that would penalize livery car drivers for knowingly transporting individuals forced into prostitution.

Lori Cohen and Kathleen Slocum, both senior staff attorneys at the organization Sanctuary for Families, described the role for-hire drivers can play in the sex trafficking industry. They acknowledged that the vast majority of drivers are honest, hardworking individuals. But for those drivers working alongside pimps to ferry victims, Cohen likened their services to "brothels on wheels."

"It is an open secret that delivery has become a preferred method for promoting prostitution in New York City, as seen clearly in the advertisements from this morning's Spanish language newspapers," said Cohen.

At a city council hearing Wednesday, council members also heard a first-hand account of sex trafficking from a victim who was able to get help after more than a year of forced prostitution. The woman, who testified from behind a screen under the name "Sophia," recalled how drivers played an active role in the sex trafficking network and reaped huge profits. She told the packed committee hearing room how drivers shuttled her around the New York area seven days a week, where she was forced to perform sexual acts on 10 to 20 clients per night.

Sophia described how drivers even knew the likes and dislikes of clients.

"Before each stop, the driver would order me how much to charge, whether to use my own condoms and lubricant or the client's, whether to make noise or stay completely quiet during sex," she said.

Council members on the Committee on Women's Issues and the Committee on Transportation introduced two bills aimed at chipping away at the sex trafficking industry. One bill proposes a $10,000 penalty for drivers who knowingly participate in sex trafficking and asks the Taxi and Limousine Commission to institute an education program on sex trafficking for all drivers. The other bill raises penalties for driving an unlicensed vehicle for hire.

David Yassky, commissioner of the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, said he supports the idea of tougher penalties for unlicensed activity and for those who participate in prostitution. But, he said the education program included in the bill is too costly. He said that, without external funding, the cost would be borne by drivers. The agency suggested creating an information packet or pamphlet that could be distributed to drivers instead.

Other critics of the legislation argue it duplicates state and federal sex trafficking laws already on the books, and unfairly targets cab drivers.