TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — A bill allowing human trafficking victims to sue hotels (HB 7045) breezed through its first committee in the Florida House. But on Monday, the House Commerce Committee approved a different bill version that removed the reference to hotels and lodging establishments.
According to Polaris, hotels and motels are notorious for sex trafficking due to easy access, the ability to pay in cash, and low overhead costs for pimps and hustlers. Victims – often underage – are advertised in online prostitution ads that frequently give the hotel’s name.
HOTELS ARE NOT INNOCENT
Criminal court records routinely list the names of hotels and motels that play a part in traffickers’ highly organized operations to transport children and adults for commercial sex. But in some cases, victims have screamed for help in hallways, bloodied, with no assistance from hotel staff.
Savannah Parvu was trafficked for commercial sex at 12 years old in multiple Central Florida hotels. She told the House committee that hotels know what is happening on their property.
“People who worked at the hotel knew what was happening, and they never did anything to help me,” Parvu said. “They actually assisted my trafficker by letting people in the room.”
HEAVY INDUSTRY PRESSURE
Under the original bill proposed, victims would be permitted to seek damages in court from hotels unless they could prove to the court that the establishment implemented specific measures to prevent human trafficking on its property. But the new version of the bill only applies the lawsuit conditions to strip clubs and adult entertainment venues, which some legislators blamed on Florida’s influential tourism industry.
“I have heard that the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA) is hard at work at stopping this, and listen, I get it,” said Rep. Taylor Yarkosky (R-Lake County).
Yarkosky said the FRLA represents the hotel industry and wants to keep its members from getting roped into litigation. But he added that safeguards were put into the bill.
“If we can’t protect our children from human trafficking, then I would ask this question to everyone in Tallahassee: What in the hell are we doing here then?” Yarkosky exclaimed.
In 2018, the Legislature tried to pass a measure allowing human trafficking victims to sue hotels. But according to members of the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, it was abandoned due to pressure from the hotel industry. Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that required hotels to hang posters with the human trafficking hotline and provide mandatory training for hotel staff.
Governor Desantis mentioned hotel industry influence on Monday when he said Disney had been involved in watering down bills on human trafficking.
“There have been bills in the Legislature, and I’ve signed bills as governor. What would happen though is the bills as they were going through the process would sometimes get watered down, largely due to the lobbying heft of Disney not wanting to have warnings in hotels and stuff,” DeSantis said.
Nicole Whitaker, Executive Director of Christians Against Trafficking, said Disney stopped previous legislation that would allow hotels to be sued by trafficking victims.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Upon filing the bill in March, House staff cited a Sun Sentinel investigation that uncovered more than 14,000 violations of the state’s human trafficking laws by hotels. The data prompted some members of the House Commerce Committee to wonder why hotels were specifically removed from the legislation since they have been at the center of the human trafficking industry in Florida.
If the Legislature doesn’t hold hotels accountable, “we’re encouraging them with our policy decisions to continue to turn a blind eye to stuff that they know or should know is happening within their establishment,” said Rep. Dotie Joseph (D-North Miami. “And we’re further enabling the people who are doing the trafficking every day we don’t do something.”
Whitaker said Florida will never win this fight against human trafficking if we don’t get to the root cause of what drives it – the money.
“Hotels who made huge profits from the victims who are abused and sold in their businesses, facilitators aiding human trafficking, have incredibly low risk and high reward.”