CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Victims of human trafficking now are eligible to sue traffickers in state courts and receive money from West Virginia's Crime Victims Compensation Act.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed House Bill 2814 into law last week, but held a bill signing ceremony on Monday to commemorate its passage.
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, was lead sponsor of the legislation and stood behind Tomblin as he signed copies of the bill.
She said the new law is a major step in combating human trafficking in West Virginia.
"It's like slavery. And when you're a slave, you're not a person. We want people to know there is a way to get help," Fleischauer said. "We think (House Bill 2814) can give victims help."
There are, generally, two kinds of human trafficking: sex trafficking, where individuals are held against their will and forced to work as prostitutes, and forced labor, where people are held against their will and forced to work with little or no compensation.
It is not a rampant problem in West Virginia, but the state saw at least six potential cases of human trafficking last year, according to the Polaris Project, a charity dedicated to fighting human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Three of those cases were considered "high risk," including two cases of sex trafficking.
That's far less than other states -- New York saw 162 potential trafficking cases in 2012 -- but Sue Julian, of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the Mountain State's new laws would help police intercept human traffickers from larger metro areas as they pass through West Virginia.
Under the new law, victims of human trafficking can take their traffickers to court. It also would make victims eligible for compensation under the state's Crime Victims Compensation Act. Tomblin said that would help trafficking victims get their lives back together.
The law also makes if possible for convicted prostitutes to have their criminal records expunged, if a court decides the person was held against his or her will at the time of the arrest.
Tomblin included three other pieces of legislation in his bill-signing ceremony Monday: House Bill 2717, requiring counties to issue their deputy sheriffs bulletproof vests upon completion of law enforcement certification; House Bill 2357, which creates specific punishments for minors engaging in 'sexting,' and House Bill 2521, the "West Virginia Contraband Forfeiture Act."
The bulletproof vest bill was inspired by the 2012 shooting of two state troopers in Clay County. Roane County Deputy John Westfall also would have died in the shootout had he not been wearing a vest.
The West Virginia Sheriff's Association heavily lobbied for the bill during the legislative session. Sheriffs' association President Rudi Raynes-Kidder said the law is important because there currently are more than 50 officers in the state without any kind of protection.
Tomblin said the sexting bill is important because it will prevent young people from ruining their lives over a few unwise decisions.