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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Colorado’s untenable child exploitation challenges

As child exploitation continues to grow, tools available to Colorado’s criminal justice system to protect our children have been curtailed. That is the take-away from a string of recent events.

Over the past few weeks, an investigative unit targeting child predators has been shuttered, a police officer dedicated to fighting child prostitution found himself at the center of lawsuit due to his participation in a documentary, and a state senator linked to a sensationalist blog that claimed California had legalized child prostitution — while proponents say the law in question is meant to combat that very issue by providing resources to prosecute anyone who forces children into sex slavery. When it comes to child exploitation, Colorado faces untenable challenge that demands correction.

When the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office found itself the target of an ethics complaint to the Colorado Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel over its child predator task force, it ceased the investigative arm of a program responsible for successfully prosecuting 900 sex offenders seeking children in Jefferson County. The Denver Post editorial board took a strong position denouncing the rule that led to this result and advocating for change. But it is critical to understand just how easily that change could be made.

The Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct govern the practice of law in Colorado. Through a standing committee, the Supreme Court writes, adopts, and amends those rules. They are not subject to legislative review or executive approval. Consequently, an exception to Rule 4.1 regarding “truthfulness in statements to others” only requires the will to write it. Given the repercussions — and monstrous effect on children — there is little excuse for failing to implement such an exception. It is just a matter of the committee drafting the language.

On the heels of the Jeffco issue, Denver Police Sgt. Daniel Steele found himself at the center of lawsuit over a documentary in which he is prominently featured. While the subject matter of “Tricked” would leave most individuals nauseous, it is hard to walk away without a profound respect for Sgt. Steele and his team. Sgt. Steele’s passion for protecting the victims of child prostitution bleeds through the camera. A critical part of his mission is to educate the public: boys and girls, parents, policy-makers, and concerned citizens. I assume that is why he agreed to participate in the documentary — not for fame or fortunate, but to bring attention to a problem most people do not understand or do not want to confront.

For his troubles, Sgt. Steele will likely be subject to depositions and testimony in a civil case brought by a victim who says the film improperly exposed her identity. Hopefully, the added trouble will not deter Sgt. Steele or other officers from continuing their educational outreach. That work is too important.

For example, in the movie, Sgt. Steele highlighted the need to focus law enforcement efforts on “pimps and johns” rather than child prostitutes. As former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey explained in the movie, those cases can be incredibly tough to prosecute. One of the primary difficulties is the reluctance of the children being trafficked to testify. Without their testimony, cases fall apart.

In response to the difficulty inherent in convincing child prostitutes to testify, California passed a law that would treat the children as victims not subject to criminal prosecution. That policy is in accord with U.S. Department of Justice positions. However, a sensational website headline stated “California Democrats Legalize Child Prostitution.” And Colorado State Senator Tim Neville reposted it to his Facebook account. In a subsequent interview with, Sen. Neville said that he had concerns about the policy, but posted the article primarily to spur others to read it and make up their own minds. While I may disagree with his conclusion, I know Sen. Neville and know him to be a fair and intelligent public servant and his concerns are reasonable. I believe he truly wants people to put more thought into this issue.

For the sake of our state — and our children — more of us should take him up on that challenge.

Mario Nicolais is a constitutional scholar and advocate, managing partner of KBN Law firm, and general counsel for Vivage Senior Living healthcare organization. Follow him on Twitter @MarioNicolaiEsq

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