HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — A public database, run by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), was meant to thwart human trafficking by posting the names and mugshots of people convicted of paying for sex.
The idea is to go after the demand. Florida ranks third in the nation in the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
But what some praised as a progressive way to tackle the issue of sex trafficking, others called misguided and even dangerous.
The I-Team found, so far, the reality of the list falls short of its promise.
Since the database launched January 1, 2021, every week, the I-Team checked for any updates to the state list of sex buyers — “johns.”
Month after month, the database remained empty.
In Hillsborough County, the sheriff’s office arrested 262 people for soliciting for prostitution last year.
In fact, a year after the database was launched, he is the only one listed for the entire state.
The I-Team brought its finding to State Attorney Andrew Warren.
“The fact that only one person is in the database just shows that this concept doesn’t actually work when it’s put into practice,” Warren said. “That’s a problem.”
With hundreds of arrests in Hillsborough County, the I-Team asked why more sex buyers have not been convicted of soliciting prostitution.
“About half of those cases go into diversion because they’re first-time offenders, so they’re not subject to the database. About a quarter of those cases end up pleading to a section that’s not captured by the database. It’s another soliciting prostitution law, and then we have about a quarter of those cases still pending.”
According to an overview from the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office, for around 25% of cases, the defendant "pleaded guilty and accepted responsibility for their actions, typically under subsection 2b or 2h."
Those subsections address offering another for the purpose of prostitution and aiding, abetting or participating in any of the acts.
Warren said while the goal is admirable — the reality is more complex.
“The goal is trying to reduce the demand for prostitution because it has an impact both on prostitution itself and on human trafficking. And we have to remember that this is a complex issue. There are women who freely choose to sell their bodies to earn a living. And then there are lots of women who feel that they have no other choice but to sell their bodies to earn a living. And then at the far end of the spectrum, you have people who are actually coerced or even forced to sell their bodies, and those are very different realities that have different priorities from a public safety standpoint.”
A person has to be arrested and convicted of soliciting prostitution after January 1, 2021, to go on the public list.
The database includes a name, a picture and an address of the convicted individual from the time that they were addressed.
If, after five years, the person has not committed another sexual offense, they’ll be automatically removed from the public database.
“The idea here was, in part, to kind of shame people. By putting their name out there, saying, ‘Oh, you solicited a prostitute and so your name is going to go into a database.’ It’s not a really effective way to reduce crime,” Warren said. “I’ve been a prosecutor a long time, I have yet to meet a criminal who looked up the statutes and evaluated the sanctions before deciding whether he was going to break the law.”
Public records show the single sex buyer listed on the database so far, solicited an undercover Hillsborough County deputy posing as a prostitute to perform a sex act for $25.
“The idea that this database was somehow going to be the ‘cure all’ for what’s happening with prostitution and human trafficking was far-fetched,” Warren said.
Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D-Plantation), a survivor of child sex abuse, filed the human trafficking billthe database was a part of in 2019.
“This was a product that was created with law enforcement, working together with law enforcement, survivors in the community, everyone working to address this issue,” Book told the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice in February 2019.
That law enforcement included Pasco County Cpl. Alan Wilkett, who is now retired.
At the same committee meeting, Wilkett told lawmakers he was pushing for accountability from — and a spotlight on — those fueling the sex trafficking industry he saw firsthand.
“This is for the buyer. This is for the one who’s creating the demand for this market, and the idea behind that is for years, law enforcement as a culture, has really gone after the prostituted person, has arrested the trafficker, but the john or the pimp or the buyer has really kind of dwelled behind the veil of anonymity. And we’re asking that that be stripped away,” Wilkett said. “If we reduce the demand, we reduce the market, and we can start putting an end to human trafficking.”
The I-Team has not yet heard back after multiple attempts to contact Sen. Book’s office to discuss where the database stands today.
Ultimately, the sweeping human trafficking bill passed with the support of all but one lawmaker.
“I was the only no vote on this bill,” Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani, of Orlando said.
Eskamani told the I-Team, if the database had not been included in the final version of the human trafficking bill, her vote would have been in favor.
“Obviously I care deeply about preventing human trafficking,” she said. “My standing was really on just — what is effective. And I just did not see, the way the policy was written, to be effective. And I don’t want unintended consequences or I don’t want policy that gives off the impression that we’re preventing human trafficking when it’s not.”
Eskamani said she would rather see the dollars put toward the database go to direct resources and organizations that are on the ground supporting human trafficking survivors.
“That one name is not reflective of the number of people who are trafficked across the state, it is not reflective of the money made in human trafficking, and so it tells me we need more solutions,” she said.
Dotti Groover-Skipper, a well-known, decades-long anti-human trafficking advocate in Tampa, said she was “shocked” when the I-Team told her a year in that the database had just one name on it.
“We know that even in Hillsborough County alone, all of the arrests that have been made for solicitation of prostitution. I mean hundreds over the last year,” she said. “I believe that there are so many loopholes in it that it probably isn’t doing what it was intended to do. And I know the individuals who passed it and who filed the bill — the intent was wonderful. I mean we all want to end demand for human trafficking and this was going to be another tool to held end demand.”
Nonprofits like SWOP Behind Bars, advocating for the rights of sex workers, came out against the johns database before its approval in Tallahassee.
“This would force already at-risk communities even further into the shadows,” one member told the Senate Committee on Community Affairs in March 2019.
Ashunte Coleman works with SWOP Behind Bars and helps to provide access to basic needs, like food and safe transportation, for sex workers.
“To be able to give back the way we give back, it warms my heart,” she said, tearing up.
Coleman, a Black transgender woman, is a former sex worker herself.
“I was one of those girls out there on that street crying for help. And needing the help. And that help never came,” she said.
The I-Team asked Coleman what she thought of the argument behind the Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database — that if the state goes after the demand, those who are buying sex, that in turn will protect victims and help put an end to sex trafficking.
“I understand, cut the head off the snake and the body will die. When you bust one of these spas that have these girls here, against their will, another one pops up. It is not as simple as that,” she said. “The thing that we need to look at is sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is different from sex work.”
After questioning the database over the past year, FDLE revealed to the I-Team that there were problems with the system.
In January, the agency discovered an automated process it developed, to identify possible cases for the johns list, was not working correctly. It is now reviewing “a couple dozen cases.”
This session, Republican State Rep. Jackie Toledo, of Tampa, is pushing a new human trafficking bill in an effort to help victims.
Toledo was among the lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill that included the Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database in 2019.
“I just couldn’t believe that there was only one,” Toledo said of the database, when she heard of the I-Team’s finding, saying it tells her, “That they’re pleading out. That they’re hiring attorneys and they’re getting just a slap on the wrist.”
Toledo said she hoped to see a reduction in human trafficking because of the shame associated with a public database.
“Shame really works and I think — nobody wants to be on a list. But if you’re having only one person on a list, it’s not working,” she said.
To change that, Toledo’s take is there needs to be more penalties. Particularly for first-time sex buyers.
“If you increase it to a felony and then plea it down to a misdemeanor, you’re going to be part of that johns registry. Because people are going to be held accountable and they’re going to think twice before buying sex,” Toledo said.
House Bill 1439 would, in part, raise the penalty for a first-time sex buyer from a misdemeanor to a felony.
The proposed change follows the lead of Texas, which last year, became the first state to make buying sex a felony.
The I-Team will be watching to see if similar controversy that came with the Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database is stirred up with Toledo’s proposal, about the best way to protect victims sold for sex.
This year, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) will study the database’s effectiveness and whether it is preventing and deterring human trafficking networks. The office will submit a report to the governor, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives by Jan. 1, 2023. If the legislature does not reenact the database, it will be taken down on Jan. 1, 2024.
Statement from FDLE
FDLE developed an automated process to identify possible qualifying arrests and judicial dispositions in the CCH system. Once a case is identified, it is forwarded to our Investigations and Forensics Services program area for analytical review. This must be completed to determine whether or not the potential cases meet the statutory criteria to be placed in the Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database. If the court files do not contain the information needed to verify entering the person into the database, an FDLE analyst contacts the arresting agency to request more information.
Cases qualify if a person was arrested and convicted after Jan. 1, 2021. Arrestees must plead guilty or nolo contendere and be found guilty or have adjudication withheld. The statute also requires the exchange of money or arrangement of a payment.
An attorney with our General Counsel’s Office completes a final review of the case prior to an individual being placed on the site.
Currently, we have a couple dozen cases being reviewed for inclusion on the Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database. During a recent program review, it was determined that the automated process was not forwarding all possible cases correctly. A manual audit was completed, and any records not previously reviewed are being reviewed now.
Resources available in the Tampa Bay area for human trafficking victims/survivors to seek help:
- Selah Freedom
- Florida Dream Center
- Rahab’s Daughters
- Redefining Refuge
- Justice Restoration Center
If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline or call 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.