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Human Trafficking Center

War of Words: Statutory Interpretation in Cardenas


Apr 2014


by Jennifer Carty, guest blogger

J.D. Candidate, University of Denver Sturm College of Law

In October 2010, eighteen-year-old Dallas Cardenas was indicted and found guilty of the following charges: trafficking a child, pimping an adult, pimping a child, pandering a child and inducing child prostitution. Champions of the movement to end human trafficking rejoiced – this was one of the few successful prosecutions for human trafficking under Colorado laws since their enactment in 2006.  The victory, however, was short-lived.  A few weeks ago, the Colorado Court of Appeals overturned Cardenas’s conviction for the trafficking of a child. The reasoning given by the Court centered on the difference between selling a child’s sexual services and the selling of an actual child.[1]

So why would a court overturn a conviction for this crime on what appears to be a linguistic technicality? The answer lies in principles of statutory interpretation. Courts often employ what are called “canons” of construction when interpreting the law they must apply to the facts of a case. The canons give Congress rules that are supposed to indicate how the language of legislation will be applied and interpreted before the law is enacted.[2] They also facilitate consistent application of the law. While some may feel this approach resulted in an injustice in People v. Cardenas, these rules are employed for good reason. Without them, the risk of widely varying judicial interpretation would increase, thereby amplifying the possibility of similar crimes being adjudicated differently.

In the Cardenas case, the Court of Appeals relied most heavily on the “plain meaning rule” but also looked to legislative history in its interpretation. If no definitions are provided in the statute itself, the court will interpret the ordinary meaning given in the dictionary.[3] In this case, the current Colorado statute states a person commits trafficking if he or she “sells, exchanges, barters or leases a child” in exchange for something of value. As a result, the Court looked to the ordinary meaning of the verbs, all of which involve the transfer of a right of ownership or possession.[4] The words indicate a transfer that is permanent or, as in the case of lease, for a defined period of time.

Applying the rules of grammar, the court went on to state that the direct object of these verbs is “a child” and not a child’s sexual services.[5] For Cardenas to be guilty of this crime, he would have to transfer the physical or legal custody of the child.[6] The ordinary meaning of these words was not just troubling to the Court. In the initial trial, the jury appeared confused by the terms, asking the judge if a person needed to “own or control another person” in order to sell, exchange, barter or lease that person.[7] By the language of the statute, Cardenas’s actions did not qualify as trafficking.

After a plain meaning analysis, courts will sometimes look to legislative history “either to confirm that plain meaning, or to refute arguments that contrary interpretation was ‘intended.’”[8] The legislative history of the current child trafficking statute supported the plain meaning analysis completed by the Court.[9] The sponsor of the bill gave two main reasons in support of enactment.[10] The first was an anecdotal story about a couple in Colorado Springs “leasing” their son to a man for months at a time. [11] The second was to criminalize the selling of children into bondage or leasing children into slave labor.[12]  Nowhere in the legislative history was there any support for a Congressional intention to define trafficking as the selling, barter, exchanging or leasing of a child’s sexual services.

No matter how we may feel about the defendant’s innocence or guilt on this issue, the Court of Appeals of Colorado could not uphold a conviction of Cardenas for the trafficking of a child under the current human trafficking statutes. The results of this case provide glaring support for House Bill 14-1273, which broadens the language as to what actions constitute trafficking of a child for sex. Under the new Bill, trafficking for sexual servitude includes the actions of selling, recruiting, harboring, transporting, transferring, isolating, enticing, providing, receiving, obtaining, maintaining or making available a minor for the purpose of sexual activity.[13] While these verbs are not defined within the statute, their combined plain meanings would undoubtedly encompass Cardenas’ action of selling the sexual services of the victim. House Bill 14-1273 is currently under consideration by the Colorado legislature. The Cardenas case is a powerful reminder to those drafting the bill that the war is in the words and statutory language must be carefully constructed to exact the intended result.


*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC


[1] People v. Cardenas, No. 11CA1954, 2014 WL 1254880, at ¶1, ¶36 (Colo. App. Mar. 27, 2014).
[2] Yule Kim, Cong. Research. Serv., 97-589, Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends Summary (2008), available at
[3] Id. at 10.
[4] Cardenas, 2014 WL 1254880 at ¶25.
[5] Id. at ¶31.
[6] Id. at ¶1.
[7] Id. at ¶18.
[8] Kim, supra note 2, at 41.
[9]Cardenas, 2014 WL 1254880 at ¶42.
[10] Id. at ¶44
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at ¶45
[13] H.B. 14-1273, 69th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. §18-3-504 (Colo. 2014)

3 Responses to “War of Words: Statutory Interpretation in Cardenas”

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    […] blogger Jennifer Carty discusses why the human trafficking conviction of Dallas Cardenas in People v. Cardenas was overturned by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The court overturned the conviction on the principle of statutory […]

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