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Ramsey County Attorney John Choi is taking an unprecedented approach to tackling child sex trafficking: He plans to take a civil statute designed primarily to protect kids from neglectful parents and use it to file no-contact orders between alleged perpetrators and their juvenile victims.

Some advocates are hailing the new effort as creative and proactive, while critics warn of possible civil liberties violations. It's unclear how many cases could be affected by the strategy, which will roll out next year if Choi's proposed 2014 budget is approved. The budget allows for the addition of one full-time attorney and one full-time clerk to his Child Protection Unit.

"It's really hard to help these children, these victims," Choi said. "There's a whole host of challenges."

Sex trafficking of juveniles has taken center stage locally and nationally in recent months. In July, Ramsey County tried three men for allegedly trafficking vulnerable girls as young as 15, getting convictions for two defendants and a deadlocked jury for a third. The FBI announced that same month that authorities arrested two suspects in St. Paul, one in Minneapolis and one in Anoka County as part of a nationwide child sex trafficking sweep that led to the arrest of 152 alleged pimps and the recovery of 106 juveniles.

Data from the Minnesota State Court Administrator's Office shows that charges for first-degree sex trafficking of someone under 18 increased statewide from 22 charges in 2003 to 48 in 2012. Across Minnesota, 22 charges have been filed so far this year, with Ramsey County filing six charges and Hennepin County filing the most: nine.

Choi said there are undoubtedly more victims whose cases fall to the wayside because there isn't enough evidence to pursue criminal charges. That's why he intends to pursue civil injunctions using Minnesota statute 260C.335.

Lower threshold of proof

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, is concerned that people could be obliquely convicted.

"It's a backdoor approach to convictions," Samuelson said. "Shame on him for using civil law to get what he can't get with criminal law. This right now is a politically popular thing to do, and the trouble is, civil liberties are almost never popular because they are the protection of the minority."

Criminal charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, while civil cases have a lower threshold of proof, requiring a preponderance of evidence. Choi's plan is to file injunctions against people suspected of trafficking or exploiting victims under age 18. Prosecutors will have to present evidence in hopes of convincing a judge to grant a no-contact or stay-away order, which will vary in length depending on the case. Theoretically, Choi said, his office could seek an order between a suspect and all juveniles, not just the victim. (Stay-away orders are typically used to ban someone from a place or location.)

"We'll be following the applicable rules and statutes, and we ultimately have to prove the case," Choi said. "I don't see any of those [civil liberties] issues at all."

Criminal charges will always be pursued when possible, he added.

Choi used injunctions before

The strategy takes a page from domestic abuse cases, where prosecutors can seek a no-contact order between suspects and victims. Choi also used civil injunctions in his previous role as St. Paul city attorney to ban three different gangs from two city festivals in 2009.

The gang injunctions were a first for Minnesota but had been used elsewhere in the country. Local and national advocates said using civil injunctions against alleged traffickers appears to be a first.

"I think it's very creative and innovative," said Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. "It deserves an opportunity to work."

Choi's intent is to use it for victims who are admitted to the county's Runaway Intervention Project (RIP), and who want an injunction. Sexually abused runaways are referred for a medical assessment and those who qualify receive intensive services, including home and school visits by a nurse, and individualized case management that could last up to a year.

Runaways are vulnerable

Although reliable statistics are difficult to come by, advocates say that runaways are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. RIP reports that between November 2005 and June 2013, the program screened 2,577 cases. About 96 percent of the cases were girls, and 4 percent boys. The average age of runaways screened was 14, and 560 cases reported being sexually exploited, raped or having suffered incest. (Some cases could involve multiple categories of exploitation.)

Breaking Free, a Minnesota nonprofit that works with victims of trafficking and prostitution, served 466 victims and survivors in the past fiscal year, 145 of whom were between ages 16 and 21, said Noelle Volin, the group's staff attorney and director of policy.

Sometimes it may be too difficult for youth to participate in the process of charging a trafficker criminally, said Laurel Edinburgh, a nurse practitioner at Children's Hospitals and Clinics in St. Paul who helped develop RIP.

A tool to protect children

"I think we need some tool to keep [alleged perpetrators] away," Edinburgh said. "We're not going to be able to help [victims] if they have ongoing contact with their trafficker."

The civil statute is "written quite broadly" to protect juveniles from parents or other adults who harm them, accommodating Choi's strategy, said Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law.

But there is still a gray area, some say.

"The pseudo-criminal tone, even though this is a civil proceeding, casts kind of a serious civil liberties question on it," said Eileen Scallen, associate dean at the UCLA School of Law. "It's a very hard balance. "

One concern Samuelson has is that violating a no-contact order is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. Depending on the case and the suspect's history, a violation could be elevated to a gross misdemeanor or felony.

"You're putting them in jail for a criminal offense," Samuelson said, "but it's a wink, wink, nudge, nudge."

Staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib