A bill that would stiffen penalties for those who force children into prostitution has new life, despite an influential East Valley lawmaker’s attempts to kill it.
The chairman of the Arizona House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, has been very critical of a provision in the bill that would bar someone accused of sexually exploiting a child to argue that he or she didn’t know the victim was 15 to 17 years old.
Currently, a defendant accused of pushing a child into prostitution can evade tougher punishments by successfully arguing he or she didn’t know the victim was a minor. But Farnsworth has warned that striking that provision from state law could hurt defendants who are wrongfully accused of a crime.
The measure, SB1268, is backed by law enforcement and was recommended by a committee focused on addressing prostitution. Since the bill was introduced early this year, it has gained wide support. In fact, it was passed by the Senate unanimously.
Farnsworth is no stranger to taking an unpopular stance on legal issues, and his opposition to the child prostitution measure is just the latest example. In the past, he has fought efforts to toughen laws against spousal rape and domestic violence.
“I’ve said everything I’ve wanted to say about this. I don’t have anything else to say,” said Farnsworth when asked to comment on the pending child prostitution crackdown.
As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Farnsworth used his power to keep the bill from receiving a formal hearing — a necessary step in the legislative process.
But outside pressure forced House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, to press Farnsworth to withdraw the bill from his committee, allowing the legislation to move forward.
“Yes, I told him it would be a wise idea,” Weiers said.
It was a rare move by the speaker, and underscored the amount of political pressure on Weiers, who generally believes in letting committee leaders operate without his interference.
Although he has the authority to pull a bill from a committee, Weiers has yet to do so as speaker. The bill was scheduled for debate on the House floor Thursday, but was held until this week, said Barrett Marson, spokesman for the Arizona House Republicans.
As an added measure, lawmakers have tacked the child prostitution provisions onto another bill moving through the Legislature, HB2342. When asked which bill would pass first, Marson said, “Whichever one gets the votes first.”
Farnsworth’s fellow Gilbert Republican, Rep. Andy Biggs, has joined him in criticizing the measure and is calling for lawmakers to add a provision that allows defendants to argue they were unaware the prostitute was a juvenile.
Under current law, anyone arrested for prostitution could be charged with a Class 4 felony. But anyone caught knowingly having sex with a prostitute under 18 can be charged with the more serious Class 2 felony.
Farnsworth’s opposition to a popular measure comes as no surprise to Chris Groinger, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Since working with the coalition, she said Farnsworth has fought many of the group’s proposals and has refused to meet with the group’s representatives.
This year, Farnsworth has voted against measures at the heart of the coalition’s agenda, such as one that would increase penalties for offenders who choke their spouses and another to allow domestic violence victims to break their rental or lease agreements. But as with the child prostitution bill, he has presented a well-reasoned opposing legal argument.
Farnsworth warned that the choking proposal could have unintended consequences, such as unfairly punishing schoolchildren fighting on playgrounds.
His most notable opposition to a popular proposal came in 2004, when he opposed laws that cracked down on spousal rape. That has forced the coalition to look for ways around Farnsworth’s committee, Groinger said.
However, he did vote for a pair of bills that increased jail time for someone charged with an aggravated assault as well as allowing victims of domestic violence to redact personal information from records such as license and registration.
Farnsworth did not comment on that, but during speech on the House floor this year, he lamented that each time a lawmaker votes against a domestic violence bill, he is ridiculed by the coalition and the news media.