- Julius Whigham II Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
From budget motels to high-end resorts, hotels are cornerstones of the Florida’s tourism industry. Some of them — including a few in Palm Beach County — also have become the crime scenes of human trafficking, officials say.
Bills before the Florida Legislature call for giving trafficking victims the right to sue the lodgings where the crime happens — especially those that take no steps to stop an offense some have called modern-day slavery — to cover costs such as medical expenses and mental-health counseling.
“Not only will it allow the victims to sue their traffickers, but also any establishment that knowingly allowed the trafficking to occur on their property or was willfully blind to the crime,” state Rep. Ross Spano, a Tampa-area Republican who sponsored the House version, said in an email to The Post. Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat, has sponsored the companion bill in the Senate.
Investigators have found multiple cases of alleged trafficking at county hotels and motels in the past year, after a local task force was created to deal with the problem. One local lawmaker, Rep Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, is a co-sponsor of the House bill and the chairman of the chamber’s Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which unanimously supported the bill in December.
“If you’re running a hotel, common sense would tell you if something untoward is happening, the hotel would be precluded from saying we didn’t know,” said Hager, whose district covers the county’s coastal areas from Boca Raton to Palm Beach Shores.
How traffickers use hotels
Human trafficking is described as the exploitation of another person for labor, domestic servitude or commercial sexual activity through the use of fraud, force or coercion. According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that tracks calls to a national hotline, hotels and motels were the most prevalent venues for sex trafficking in Florida during the first half of 2017.
Spano — who is seeking the Republican nomination for Florida attorney general — said his office has noticed a rising number of incidents at hotel establishments across the state. Totals for his district, which includes the Brandon and Gibsonton areas east and south of Tampa, were not immediately available.
“This does not necessarily mean that trafficking is increasing, but rather that people are becoming more aware of what human trafficking is and speaking up when they see something suspicious,” Spano said.
In Palm Beach County, there were at least four cases in which in alleged traffickers either used, or attempted to use, a hotel to exploit their victims. In one instance, according to investigators, a South Florida man, Robert Atlee Miner used hotels in Broward and Palm Beach counties to sell women into prostitution.
In one of the other cases, Boynton Beach police alleged that a suburban Boynton Beach man, Marco Orrego, used a motel in that city to force a teenage girl into prostitution. Orrego pleaded guilty to federal charges in October and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“Human traffickers often rely on legitimate businesses to sustain their operations and unfortunately, hotels and lodging are one of the venues that traffickers us to exploit their victims,” Carol Dover, president and chief executive of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a statement to The Post.
House Bill 167 is scheduled to go before the Judiciary Committee. The Senate’s bill, No. 1044, was referred to the Rules Commitee in January and is not yet scheduled for a vote.
Similar bills were introduced last year but stalled in both chambers. This year’s House bill includes a provision that would limit liability for establishments that can show they had training and protocols in place to spot trafficking, as well as the removal of a provision that would have let police agencies seize a hotel’s assets without charging owners with a crime. The House’s Judiciary Committee postponed a hearing scheduled for Thursday so that it could review an amendment that could offer hotels further protections.
Dover said the lodging organization is committed to working with lawmakers to ensure the safety of employees and guests, but also wants to see adequate protections for lodging venues — especially for those that train its employees to spot and report evidence of human trafficking.
Rick Netzel, the director of sales and marketing, for the Best Western motel on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, in West Palm Beach said it would be difficult to prove that hotel establishment knew of human trafficking activity. The standard of proof is a “preponderance of the evidence,” according to language in the bills.
“If they did, most responsible hoteliers would call the police,” Netzel said. “I know we would.”
Netzel said hotels in West Palm Beach regularly communicate with each other about crime trends and suspicious activities. In addition, the Best Western has trained staff to look for signs of suspicious behavior he said.
“What quality hotel, what quality staff would want that in their hotel?” Netzel said. “Front-desk training is probably the most crucial thing that’s going on. Everyone has got to keep their eyes open.”
Questions of accountability
Richard Slawson, a Palm Beach Gardens based attorney and a board member of the nonprofit Florida Children First, said stronger legislation and civil penalties are necessary to ensure accountability and to help victims of human trafficking recover.
He pointed to a 2017 Pennsylvania lawsuit in which a teenage girl sued a Philadelphia motel, alleging that the motel regularly provided rooms for her traffickers. The suit was the state’s first of its kind after a law passed in 2014 allowing trafficking victims to sue hotels, according to published reports.
“One of the statements (by the hotel owners) was, ‘We just rent the room, that’s all we can do,’ ” Slawson said. “That’s not true. That’s not all you can do. You can train your staff. It should have been obvious to the personnel. When an underage girl is brought to a hotel and there are groups of men seen leaving the hotel room, it’s obvious what’s going on.”
In January, attorneys for an 18-year-old Houston woman filed a civil suit against 15 hotel chains, five truck stops and the website Backpage, alleging the venues and the website profited from the sexual exploitation of the woman when she was a minor, the Houston Chronicle reported.
The lawsuit alleges the venues took no action as a series of men visited the woman’s room.
“When you have 40 to 50 johns in one night visiting one room and it’s not prevented or stopped, somebody should held accountable,” attorney Annie McAdams told the Chronicle.
Linda Geller-Schwartz, a board member for the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches, said her hope is all hotel employees in the state will be required to receive education about human trafficking. In recent months,the coalition has visited several local hotels to discuss the issue.
“Generally and nationally they are (becoming more reactive),” Geller-Schwartz said. “But there’s a long way to go.”