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Tue., Feb. 22, 2011, midnight

Editorial: Children are worth slight exception to privacy law

Not all policy choices made by a legislature are about cutting spending vs. cutting services. For example, there’s protecting children vs. protecting privacy.

So while the spotlight shines most brightly on the budgetary stage in Olympia, an important nonfiscal sideshow is playing out in the wings. Substitute Senate Bill 5545 asks whether going after human traffickers is worth giving up a measure of citizens’ protection from government snooping. And, to complicate matters further, whether it’s also worth using some victimized children as agents in the process.

We believe it is.

We believe the tragedy of forcing minors into sex slavery warrants the carefully and narrowly defined expansion of eavesdropping authority embodied in SSB 5545.

Normally, Washington state law forbids the recording of a conversation unless both parties consent to it, which makes it fairly ineffective as a crime-fighting tool when time and circumstances make getting a court warrant impractical. Which is why state law already provides a workable exception in drug cases.

On the premise that protecting children is as worthy as interdicting drug traffic, SSB 5545 would make the same provision available in human trafficking cases. Namely, if law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe that a conversation is about commercial sexual abuse of a child, they can tape it with only the victim’s consent. They have to keep a record and submit it to a judge within two judicial days, however.

The underage victim could be used as a “cooperating witness,” but only by telephone or electronic device, avoiding face-to-face contact with the alleged exploiter.

As supported by a 2007 survey by what was then called the Western Regional Institute for Community Oriented Public Safety, human trafficking is a serious problem in Spokane, which is considered an “entry area” for child prostitutes.

Numerous states, Idaho among them, have one-party consent laws as it is, and given the disdain human traffickers have for political boundaries, a law like this would lend valuable continuity to interstate cases.

While Washington was a pioneer in outlawing this activity, successful prosecutions have been few. Enactment of this measure could help improve that record.

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