Beaufort County's top prosecutor has joined the state attorney general in urging passage of a human-trafficking bill that has been stuck in committee since last year.
The bill criminalizes sex trafficking, gives prosecutors the power to seize the assets and property of convicted traffickers, and provides much-needed support to victims, who often suffer in silence, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said.
Stone and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson were among the speakers Tuesday at a press conference in Columbia to lobby for House Bill 3757, introduced in February by state Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach. The bill was referred last year to the House Judiciary Committee, where it remains.
"Human trafficking is a clandestine crime, meaning it often goes underreported or sometimes totally unreported in many cases," Stone said. "The people running these organizations do so the same way (former Mafia boss John) Gotti did -- through fear and intimidation."
The proposal also would give human-trafficking victims the right to bring lawsuits against their oppressors.
South Carolina was identified by the nonprofit Polaris Project of Washington, D.C., as one of nine states whose laws failed to adequately address human trafficking.
"Law enforcement in this state is ready and willing to arrest and prosecute human-trafficking offenders, but there currently is no law on the books for them to use," Wilson said. "We must do better in South Carolina, and that means immediately passing a law to allow authorities to crack down on this growing crime problem."
According to the bill, human trafficking has been reported in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, but advocates say the crime is not limited to those areas.
Stone cited the arrest of an illegal immigrant living in Beaufort, Zilen Wang, who pled guilty in federal court to aiding and abetting the transporting of illegal immigrants to work at Jade Garden restaurants as proof that human trafficking occurs locally.
Authorities said the restaurant owners -- Wang and five other Chinese nationals in Beaufort County -- negotiated to hire waitresses and dishwashers smuggled into the U.S. from China and Latin America. The workers were housed in a trailer in Burton and paid little.
Jan Dyer, president of the Lowcountry Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said local residents can't assume human trafficking only exists in and around large cities.
"This is going on in every country, in every major city, so there is no reason to think it's not happening in some of the smaller areas," Dyer said Jan Dyer.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.