Hotels removed from Florida bill that allows lawsuits over sex trafficking

Florida’s thousands of hotels have been called the center of the state’s human-trafficking industry, providing convenient venues for the forced sale of sex.

A bill in the state Legislature that would have allowed victims to sue hotels had been sailing through the Florida House. But on Monday, the House Commerce Committee approved a new version that removed hotels from the provision, in a change that some victim advocates and legislators blamed on the state’s influential tourism industry.

ALSO READ:  How To Make Money Daily Using Your Mobile Phone Or Computer

The bill, HB 7045, would have allowed victims to win damages from hotels and other businesses, unless these businesses could prove that they had taken specific steps to fight human trafficking. But late last week, the lawsuit provision was revised to apply only to adult entertainment venues such as strip clubs.

Rep. Taylor Yarkosky, a Lake County Republican who sponsored the bill along with Rep. Toby Overdorf, said the decision to remove hotels came from the offices of House Speaker Paul Renner and Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, who had legal concerns. But he also attributed the change to the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, the trade group for the state’s hotels.

“I have heard that the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association is hard at work at stopping this, and listen, I get it,” he said. “They represent their people, and they don’t want good businesses to get roped into litigation. I understand that. But I think that Representative Overdorf and I did a good job of putting some safeguards into that bill.”

“If we can’t protect our children, we can’t protect them from human trafficking, then I would ask this question to everyone in Tallahassee: What in the hell are we doing here then?”

The Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association did not respond to requests for comment. The offices of House Speaker Renner and Senate President Passidomo also did not respond to requests for comment.

Hotels are by far the most common location for sex trafficking, according to law enforcement and advocacy groups. Specific hotels are often listed in online prostitution ads in Florida. And hotels frequently show up in criminal court records, with traffickers accused of taking children and adults under their coercion from hotel to hotel in highly organized operations.

Savannah Parvu, who had been trafficked as a 12-year-old at hotels in Central Florida, told the House committee Monday that hotels can’t claim ignorance of what was happening in their rooms.

“People who worked at the hotel knew what was happening, and they never did anything to help me,” she said. “They actually assisted my trafficker by letting people in the room.”

The state Legislature attempted in 2018 to let victims sue hotels where it happened, if the hotels had failed to take steps to prevent it. But under pressure from the hotel industry, the bills were killed. The legislature instead passed a bill in 2019 that required hotels to train staff, establish a procedure for reporting suspected trafficking and put up posters with phone numbers to call for help.

But hotels have been able to violate that law without consequences. A Sun Sentinel investigation last year found hotels and other lodging establishments had racked up more than 14,000 violations of the state’s human trafficking law without incurring a single fine. That investigation was cited in the analysis by the House staff of the original version of the current bill that would have allowed victims to sue hotels.

Several members of the House Commerce Committee said they were mystified and disappointed at the decision to exclude hotels, considering their importance to the sex trafficking industry.

If the Legislature doesn’t crack down on hotels, “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.”

“This current form does not get to the heart of the matter,,” she said. “It’s decorative, it’s performative, and it acts like we’re doing something, and it’s a good start, I guess, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem.”

Rep. Overdorf, R-Stuart, the bill’s co-sponsor, who has been a leader in the legislative fight against human trafficking, said hotels could make it back into the bill, if the language could be written more precisely. Although opposition from the hotel industry played a role in the removal, he said, the concerns were more general.

Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Get updates on developing stories as they happen with our free breaking news email alerts.

“We tried to make the most broad and fair legislation at the same time, and the determination was that it was not fair to all parties concerned,” he said. “The hotel industry, of course, had their input but it was a decision that was made beyond just the input of the hotel industry.”

“If you read the bill previously, there was also the restaurant Industry in there, the apartment industry, condominiums, and it’s not just hotels. We want to make sure we get it correct so that when we have legislation like this and there is civil liability that we are getting those that are responsible.”

Gov. Ron Desantis worked the allegation of hotel industry influence into his ongoing feud with Disney, saying at a news conference Monday that Disney had been involved in weakening trafficking bills.

“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. I think it’s important that we lean in as hard on this as we can, and we’re actually doing more in the Legislature, I know the Legislature’s doing some stuff which I hope I’ll be able to sign. I really look forward to doing that.”

Disney did not respond to questions from the South Florida Sun Sentinel about its role in the legislation over sex trafficking and hotels, except to send background information on its recent conflicts with the DeSantis administration over its special administrative district.

Nicole Whitaker, executive director of Christians Against Trafficking, blamed Disney for killing previous legislation to allow hotels to be sued by trafficking victims, which she said was an essential step to stop this form of crime.

“We will never win this fight against human trafficking if we don’t get to the root cause of what drives it — the money,” she said. “…While businesses who aid trafficking, like hotels who made huge profits from the victims who are abused and sold in their businesses . These facilitators aiding human trafficking have incredibly low risk and high reward.”


Spread the love

Similar Posts