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Red Sand Project

Stephanie Baucus speaks at the Red Sand Project at Peaks to Plains Park at MSU Billings during the second annual event Thursday, April 25, 2019.

Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday signed into law a measure aimed at sex traffickers and customers of illicit massage businesses.

SB 147, carried by Sen. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, criminalizes commercial sex acts that are direct and not through a clothing barrier. Until now, only commercial intercourse was illegal.

That portion of the bill, advocates said, was designed to crack down on illicit massage businesses that offer commercial sex acts that fall short of intercourse.

While non-intercourse sex acts now fall under the prostitution statutes in Montana, only customers or traffickers — and not those selling sex — can be prosecuted, according to language built into the law. 

The bill also takes aim at sex traffickers, by allowing prosecutors to seek increased penalties against them. Until now, those increased penalties were available only for the customers who bought commercial sex.

Finally, the bill changes the definition of consent so it’s unavailable if a defendant knew or reasonably should have known that the person giving consent was a trafficking victim or was subjected to force, fraud or coercion.

Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Molly Rose Fehringer said this change could be used in cases where a customer explicitly requested to have sex with an underage victim, for example.

Aggravating penalties will now be available at sentencing in cases where a defendant knew or should have known the victim was trafficked.

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The law takes effect immediately. 

Stephanie Baucus, co-founder of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force, said the new law was the result of years of work and seeing it signed felt relieving. 

"To be honest with you, I was very excited but just relieved," Baucus said. "I feel really relieved that we now have the additional protections for victims of trafficking and extra tools to help law enforcement and prosecutors go after traffickers."

A second bill aimed at sex traffickers and illicit massage businesses, HB 749, is awaiting action by the governor.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.