Friday, September 21, 2018
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This bill would allow trafficking victims to sue hotels. Hotels don’t like it.

When Savannah Parvu was being sold for sex out of a central Florida hotel room, she was just 12 years old.

Men came in and raped her, and hotel staff asked nothing and did nothing, she told legislators on Monday.

Sometimes, her trafficker asked hotel staff for favors, asking them to open the door to let men inside. They obliged.

One night, when she didn't have a ride home from the hotel, her trafficker asked hotel staff to tell her to walk. They obliged.

"I was walking barefoot, bloody, beaten and alone at 12 years old down the hallway of the hotel," she told legislators. "Nobody helped me. No one asked questions. Nobody did anything."

Parvu's story is at the center of a debate over a bill in the Florida Legislature that would allow human trafficking victims to sue some of the businesses that most profit from it: hotels and motels.

On the surface, the bill has widespread support, passing three committees without anyone voting against it. But behind the scenes, the hotel industry is waging a campaign against it, legislators say.

"We've seen language, not from Disney directly … that would have removed some of the teeth that exist," said the senate bill sponsor, state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation. When asked whether there has been a behind-the-scenes effort to weaken the bill, Book said, "I think that's a fair assumption."

The House version of the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, might be defanged. Spano filed an amendment that would exempt hotels and motels from being sued, but the amendment hasn't been taken up yet.

Neither Disney nor the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, which are both registered to lobby the House version of the bill, responded to requests for comment.

And no one spoke against the bill during Monday's committee hearing, in which survivors of human trafficking told horrifying stories of rape and abuse in Florida hotel rooms.

"That is where the largest percent of sex trafficking takes place," said Connie Rose, who said she was sexually abused by her father from age 2 and then forced into prostitution at age 15.

The bill would not just allow victims to sue their traffickers and "willfully blind" companies that help carry out trafficking.

If the victims win their lawsuits, their defendants would have to pay an additional $50,000 penalty, which would go to a trust fund for other victims. If police rescued the trafficking victim, an additional $50,000 would be imposed on the defendant, for other anti-trafficking efforts by police.

But the bill gives hotels an easy way to escape such lawsuits. If the hotel trains employees to recognize signs of trafficking, has a protocol for reporting it, and employees followed the training and protocols, the hotel has an "affirmative defense" that would quash the lawsuit.

Texas and Pennsylvania have adopted similar laws, and at least two lawsuits have followed. In January, a Houston teen who was trafficked filed a case against 15 hotel chains and five truck stops. Last year, a 14-year-old girl filed a lawsuit against a roadside motel in Philadelphia where she was forced to have sex with as many as 1,000 men over two years.

Former Seminole County prosecutor Lisa Haba told legislators that the signs of trafficking are obvious, and that hotel staff often know what's going on. She recalled one case she brought against a man who was trafficking a 17-year-old girl in a Days Inn.

Haba said she put the hotel manager on the stand during the trial, where the woman admitted knowing prostitution was going on, but said she was only concerned with renting rooms and paying bills.

"That girl was raped more than 10 times in one day because that woman turned a blind eye and did nothing," Haba said.

On Monday, senators were awed by the women who recounted being trafficked, even if they expressed concern about creating a new market for trial lawyers to go after hotels.

"How do we protect an industry without just telling them they're guilty before getting started?" state Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said.

Neither Broxson nor committee chairman René Garcia, R-Hialeah, who also expressed concerns about the bill, said they were approached by anyone in  the hotel industry. Broxson did say he had heard rumors that the industry was trying to influence the bill.

"They haven't spoken to me. The concerns that I have are my concerns," Garcia said. "I could care less about the industry. My whole concern is about the victims."

Both senators voted for the bill.

Broxson called one of the women who spoke "an incredible human being" for sharing her story.

"You will be remembered forever here for being one of the greatest people we've ever seen," he said.

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