The Challenges in Prosecuting Sex Trafficking Cases

Sex trafficking cases are complex, messy and time consuming from the initial investigation through the judicial process. In 2020 the average amount of time to resolve a federally prosecuted case was 38 months, in 2019 that time was 27 months and in 2018 it took 26 months [1].  While the COVID-19 pandemic did add significant time in 2020 we continue to see these cases taking longer and longer.  Let’s identify the challenges law enforcement and district attorneys are facing to better understand this complex process.


History of Sex Trafficking Laws

A law criminalizing human trafficking was only first passed in 2003, by the state of Washington [2]. It took another 10 years for all 50 states to have a similar law enacted. Meaning these crimes have only been prosecutable for the last 9 years at a state level.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was the first comprehensive federal law enacted to address trafficking in persons [3]. This federal law has since been revised five times to provide further prevention and protection for victims and prosecutorial abilities since 2000.

The law says at both the state and federal (18 U.S. Code § 1591)  levels  that “Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age” [3].


Investigative Challenges to Sex Trafficking

Law enforcement is faced with a handful of challenges when it comes to investigating sex trafficking cases. First force, fraud, and coercion can be difficult to prove. Here are some examples:

Force – the use of violence, threats, and fear as a means of control. This may include physical harm, restraint, sexual assaults, beatings, and monitoring of the victim.

Fraud – false promises used as a means of control. This may include promises of jobs, money or even love.

Coercion – the use of threats or shaming as a means of control. This may include threatening to share images without consent and other forms of psychological manipulation.

A trafficker’s use of these tactics to manipulate and control their victims, combined with the extensive number of sexual assaults sex trafficking victims experience results in an unfathomable amount of complex trauma sustained by the victim. This type of trauma changes how the brain operates, it places someone in a constant state of survival mode. Meaning that victims of this crime are only focused on doing what ensures their basic needs (safety, food, and sleep) are met. Typically talking to law enforcement does not fall into the safe options category as perceived by the victim.

Eighty-five percent of sex trafficking victims report that they developed a close relationship with their trafficker [4]. This is evidence of a trafficker that is using a promise of love (fraud) as a means of control. This is a powerful control tactic and another way in which traffickers use their authority to ensure their victims make poor witnesses for law enforcement.

If law enforcement does not have a cooperating witness, then they are left to use technical evidence to prove force, fraud, and coercion. The use of this type of evidence can be overwhelming for investigators. An estimated 150,000 new escort ads are posted online daily, hidden among these ads are victims of sex trafficking [4]. Law enforcement not only has to find them among this massive number of ads, they then must pour countless hours into researching to determine a true identity for each victim. Alongside this effort they also much discover evidence of force, fraud, or coercion through publicly available information (PAI), while simultaneously setting up an operation to provide recovery.

Law enforcement nationwide rarely has the time, resources, and sometimes research skill set necessary to identify and locate these women and children before they are moved to another jurisdiction. Resource constraints, lack of time and expertise combined with the transient nature of this crime creates a gap in the system that Guardian Group’s PURSUIT® Team naturally fills.

This crime is complex and time consuming and many states do not have the necessary task forces and manpower dedicated to combating it. For example, in the entire state of Oregon there is only one detective whose entire job is to focus on trafficking. All other officers are also given the task of policing countless other crimes in order to protect their communities.


Challenges Prosecutors of Sex Trafficking Face

The challenges associated with stopping sex trafficking does not end with the law enforcement investigation. District attorneys are also experiencing challenges in the court room when it comes to prosecuting these horrific crimes.

A study done by the National Institute of Justice found that prosecutes face multiple challenges associated with these types of cases [5]. Those challenges include:

– Many cases require numerous state, local and federal agencies to work together which can be difficult to navigate.

– The laws associated are relatively new and there is a lack of precedent in case law.

– A lack of funding.

– Very little to no cooperation from victims.

Outside of these barriers there are also challenges coming directly from the traffickers themselves. Many can pay their own bail, prompting states to begin to create legislature preventing this. Others intimidate their witnesses, and many are able to continue their criminal enterprise from within the walls of jail.


What can I do to help?

Now that we have a better understanding of the challenges these professionals are facing, we must seek ways to support their efforts. Here are three ways to ease these challenges:

Volunteer with the PURSUIT® Team – As mentioned above Guardian Group’s PURSUIT® Teams exists to support law enforcement and district attorneys in the online research element of these cases. We take the burden of putting a true identity to victims and the discovery of technical evidence off law enforcement and district attorneys. This allows them to act and offer recovery to victims faster and more efficiently. If you have Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) skills it is time to use them for good and volunteer with our PURSUIT Team®.

Become a Guardian – We understand that the type of volunteer we need has a specialized skill set, if you do not posses this skill set but want to support this effort join our team of Guardians! A Guardian is a monthly donor, willing to help provide reliable support throughout the year to ensure that this work can expand.

Advocate for Change – As we move forward in these efforts as a nation our laws will also need to evolve to stop this crime more effectively. Use your voice to let your elected officials know that this is a crime you will not stand for and ways the laws could improve. These could include advocating for better training laws for law enforcement, hotels, and healthcare workers, longer sentences for these predators and better protections for victims of this type of crime.





Feehs, K., & Currier Wheeler, A. (2021). 2020 Federal Human Trafficking Report. Human Trafficking Institute.

Office of the Attorney General. (n.d.). Human Trafficking. Human Trafficking | Washington State. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from

Victims of trafficking and violence protection act 2000, Trafficking in persons report (2001). bill. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from

Thorn (2018, January). Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking [PDF].

Farrell, A., Adams, W., Dank, M., Owens, C., Fahy, S., Pfeffer, R., & McDevitt, J. (2012, April). Identifying Challenges to Improve the investigation and prosecution of state and local human trafficking cases. National Institute of Justice. Retrieved February 3, 2022, from