Civil liability for human trafficking in the hospitality industry is slowly emerging to the forefront of state legislators’ line of sight. Historically, the human trafficking problem became so widespread in part because most Americans lacked awareness of the issue. In the last decade, those circumstances are changing. For example, The Department of Defense has significantly increased employee training on what human trafficking is and how it operates. The White House proclaimed January 2017 as “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.” In 2003, Washington became the first state to criminalize human trafficking, Now, every state has some version of anti-human trafficking legislation in place. This shift in awareness is encouraging states to consider civil liability legislation.
TVPA Act Passes
In 2000, Congress passed The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The act breaks down sex trafficking into three elements: act, means, and purpose. The act element includes actions such as recruiting, enticing, transporting, providing or soliciting by any means a person. The means element requires the use of force, threat of force, fraud, or coercion of sex trafficking. The purpose element involves one to cause or to recklessly disregard the facts that are involved in engaging a victim to enter into a commercial sex act. Under this legal framework, hotels can be held criminally liable for sex trafficking. At this point, every state has adopted similar legislation to hold traffickers criminally liable.
Awareness of human trafficking is bringing awareness to how traffickers operate. Hotels are a prominent venue that traffickers utilize to set up encounters between women and those purchasing sex. Because human trafficking can be deceptive to someone who isn’t fully aware of the nature of the crime, traffickers constantly move in and out of hotels under the unaware watch of hotel staff. Yet a recent shift shows that some states are enacting legislation targeting human trafficking in the hotel industry.
Due to the intense trauma and disruption experienced by human trafficking victims, recent legislation seeks to provide the help they need at the trafficker’s expense through civil liability. Federal law permits victims to bring a civil suit against traffickers and anyone who financially benefited from his or her victimization and knew or should have known the acts were in violation of the law. This would include hotel employees and owners unaware of trafficking coming in and out of their business. Regardless of any excuse from a lack of awareness, when a hotel employee does not recognize the signs of sex trafficking, the criminal activity still proceeds on hotel property. Therefore, the hotel itself is effectively profiting from the trafficking and can be held civilly liable under federal law.
A handful of states have adopted this approach. For example, in California, a victim of human trafficking may bring civil action for damages caused by their victimization. California law expressly states that victims of human trafficking may bring a separate civil action against any defendant charged with a violation of California Penal Code § 236.1, California’s criminal law against human trafficking. A hotel employee or owner, under this law, does not have to be convicted of the crime of human trafficking before a civil suit is filed against him or her, nor is a civil suit dependent on establishing a criminal conviction. This gives freedom to the victim to bring a civil suit against a hotelier at any time.
Another state, Oregon, expressly allows victims of human trafficking to recover damages from those who violated Oregon’s human trafficking statutes. For example, if a hotel knowingly rents a room to a trafficker or should have known that it was renting a room to a trafficker for human trafficking, the hotel can be convicted under Oregon’s human trafficking laws. Again, ignorance to the issue is not an excuse under criminal or civil law in Oregon. If a hotel employee or owner should have known they were renting a room to a trafficker, they are automatically liable.
Other states are slowly considering implementing civil liability into their legislation. Pennsylvania, for example, passed legislation that can hold hotel employees and hotel owners both civilly and criminally liable for sex trafficking. Hotel employees can be charged for “harboring” a sex trafficking victim. The employee need not commit the means himself but merely act in reckless disregard of the fact that a trafficker was using those means to subject a victim to involuntary servitude. Hotel corporations can be criminally charged if they knowingly or with reckless disregard allowed sex trafficking to occur in their hotel. Moreover, an adult victim of sex trafficking in a Pennsylvania hotel can sue both the hotel and the individual hotel employee who rented a room to the trafficker.
A 2017 Florida bill would have allowed victims to sue hotel owners and staff as facilitators for sex trafficking if they either knowingly or through willful blindness allowed traffickers to rent rooms for the purpose of human trafficking. Yet this bill was pulled from the Senate committee in March 2018. Apparently, hotel owners pushed back against any legislation that would hold them liable without knowledge of sex trafficking occurring on their property. During the legislative process in Florida, there was discussion regarding proposed changes that would safeguard the owner from liability if they had no knowledge and if a mandatory training is already being implemented. Thus, hoteliers and legislatures are aware that a lack of education can cause employees and hotel owners to find themselves in muddy water. Should legislation pass holding hoteliers civilly liable, there would likely be a push for required hotel training, resulting in far more awareness on what exactly human trafficking looks like.
In Connecticut, current legislation aims to put signs explaining who a victim might be along with the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in every hotel lobby in the state. A survivor of sex trafficking paired up with New York legislators to work on a bill that would require training of staff members and posters with warning signs for staff and visitors. Legislation requiring hotels to put up signs and receive training is a step in the right direction. Yet the power to hold a hotel liable in court for operating as a hub for sex trafficking through enacted legislation is strong. More states like Pennsylvania need a shift toward civil liability of hotel owners and employees and enabling traffickers. By holding hoteliers civilly liable, accountability, further education, and the fight to end human trafficking in one of the crime’s largest arenas would result.
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