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New Mexico’s Law School Serving New Mexico’s Children: Law Students Create a Safe Harbor Law

July 15, 2019 - Sal Guardiola II

Cristina Vasquez and Simon Suzuki, Courtesy UNM Law Media Center
Cristina Vasquez and Simon Suzuki, Courtesy UNM Law Media Center

This month, the state of New Mexico began enforcing a safe harbor law drafted by recent UNM Law graduates Cristina Vasquez (’19) and Simon Suzuki (’19). The law protects sexually exploited children. Introduced as New Mexico House Bill 56 (“HB 56”), the bill became law following unanimous passage in the House of Representatives on February 6, unanimous passage in the Senate on March 9, and a signature from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (’87) on March 28 of this year. None of that would have occurred without the support of the UNM Law community.   

Before this year, child victims of sexual exploitation could be charged with prostitution, a criminal offense under the New Mexico Statutes. Vasquez and Suzuki saw injustice and took action. They started a project to address this issue while serving in the UNM Law Clinic during the summer of 2018. The project continued into the fall and spring semesters. Working closely with Clinical Law Professor and Supervising Attorney April Land as well as with the New Mexico Human Trafficking Task Force, they created a narrow anti-trafficking statute that amended the law in New Mexico as it pertains to children. The amendment expressly excludes prostitution as a delinquent act, recognizing that sexually exploited children are victims and that the real criminals are the adults who exploit them. Additionally, the safe harbor law provides a process through which child victims can access services and support within the community instead of facing incarceration and criminalization.

Indeed the passage of HB 56 was a group effort with the UNM Law community assisting Vasquez and Suzuki at every turn. Deputy Director of the NM Sentencing Commission Douglas Carver (’09) provided guidance at the outset. State Representative Gail Chasey (’08) cosponsored HB 56 with Representative Christine Trujillo. Former UNM Law Professor and State Senator Antoinette Sedillo Lopez sponsored HB 56 in the Senate. The final push came from the citizen-lobbying power of UNM Law students taking the Legislative Process Class taught by Professor Morris “Mo” Chavez (’98). Students in Professor Chavez’s class tracked HB 56 and led a letter-writing campaign to ensure there was vocal support for HB 56 during the legislative session.

In addition to serving children, the safe harbor law aids law enforcement officials in carrying out their work. Previously, officers struggled to address the needs of young victims of sex trafficking because the pre-amended law and the lack of services available in New Mexico constrained officers. Furthermore, before HB 56, human traffickers benefitted from the criminalization of their child victims because the threat of prosecution encouraged victims to remain silent about their exploitation. This put well-meaning law enforcement officials in a dilemma. In an effort to protect child victims of sexual exploitation, officers often charged victims with drug or property crimes. The charges resulted in arrests, which allowed officers to remove victims from their abusers, thus allowing victims to receive necessary medical, psychiatric, and social services. However, despite these officers’ good intentions, victims experienced the inescapable negative effects arising from arrest, namely incarceration and criminal treatment. With the safe harbor law in effect, law enforcement officials can now perform their duties and provide protection to victims without imposing criminal sanctions.

For too long, New Mexico has been one of the worst places to be a child, and the law that predated HB 56 exacerbated that. In passing HB 56, the Legislature sent a powerful message to the child victims of human trafficking: they are not criminals, their experiences are valid, and the state of New Mexico will protect them.

Thanks to the tireless work of Vasquez and Suzuki, combined with the efforts of the UNM Law community, New Mexico is a safer place for children. If you would like to find out more information about how New Mexico’s Law School is serving New Mexico’s children, visit our website or contact Sal Guardiola II.