Human trafficking bill killed in the waning hours of legislative session

Republicans on Friday seemed determined to kill it, and it died on a technicality.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, watches Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, watches Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published March 10, 2018|Updated March 10, 2018

A bill that would have allowed victims of human trafficking to sue hotels failed in the waning hours of the Legislative session Friday night.

It was killed after Republicans grilled the bill sponsor, Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and protested the bill on a technicality.

Sen. René Garcia, R-Miami, who was breathing heavily after running back to his desk so he could speak against the bill, said he supported Book's effort.

But because the House didn't take up a separate portion of the bill – one that would have created a trust fund for trafficking victims – Garcia urged fellow lawmakers to vote it down. The Senate already passed a separate trust fund bill.

"I have to stand up today and ask you to vote down this amendment … because our friends in the House did not do the right thing," Garcia said.

Book urged them to vote for it anyway, gesturing to three trafficking victims in the gallery.

"They have to drive home because they can't stay in hotels," Book said.

It was a strange end to a bill that at one point appeared a sure thing.

Her bill would have allowed victims to sue the hotels and motels that turn a blind eye to human trafficking, and not a single lawmaker voted against it as it went through committees.

But last week, Book mysteriously postponed it, leaving trafficking victims furious and fellow lawmakers scratching their heads, wondering if Senate leadership and the powerful hotel lobby, including Disney, was working behind the scenes to kill the bill.

On Thursday, however, it was given new life, after Book used some clever legislative maneuvering to force it to a vote on the Senate floor.

She used an amendment to sneak the bill's language onto a different bill, a tactic that violates Senate rules. But she was able to overcome the rule, creating a vote on the bill Friday night, in the waning hours of the legislative session.

But Republicans on Friday seemed determined to kill it.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, repeatedly questioned how someone could recognize the signs of trafficking.

"I don't want people to be judged based on what they should have known," Stargel said, before throwing up her hands as she set her microphone down.

Senators Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Garcia also questioned Book about technical parts of the bill before Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, moved to disqualify the bill on a technicality.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, then agreed with the technicality. One last-ditch effort by Book to save it also failed.

Under Book's bill, victims would have been able to sue companies that "willingly and knowingly" turn a blind eye to trafficking. That mostly meant hotels and motels, where trafficking usually takes place.

It coasted through committees, where lawmakers heard victims' horror stories of being trafficked in hotels and motels and employees doing nothing to help them. A former prosecutor told of trafficking cases she handled where employees knew victims were being trafficked, but did nothing.

During those committees, Garcia and Broxson raised questions about the bill but still voted for it.

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 already have similar laws, but lawsuits there have been scarce.