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September 26, 2017

Flipping the Risk-Reward Equation for those who Reap the Profits of Human Trafficking

Earlier this month, a lawsuit brought by the city of Los Angeles against a Motel 6 was settled when the popular motel chain paid $250,000 to the city. The city claims that the motel’s management knew that the location was being used as a hub for human trafficking and other illicit activity, profiting from these activities instead of alerting law enforcement.

The city plans to use the settlement money to fight human trafficking. It also requires the motel to post signs about human trafficking throughout the main lobby and corridors, to employ security guards, and to check for photo identification of guests. 

This isn’t the first case where a hotel has come under fire. Earlier this year a 14-year-old trafficking survivor in Philadelphia sued the hotel where she was continuously sexually exploited along with other teenage girls. This hotel was also known as a local hub for human trafficking, but the owners and staff ignored the signs and instead chose to reap the profits from the abuse of these women. The suit was filed under Pennsylvania’s Human Trafficking law that expands the definition of the crime to include both those who participate directly and those who profit second-hand from illicit action, setting the stage for human trafficking survivors to file suits against those who have aided in their abuse.

Unfortunately, globally, traffickers operate with near impunity, facing few risks from the law. Even when victims are identified, traffickers turn to a new vulnerable population, quickly replacing the last. According to the International Labor Organization, human trafficking earns criminals an estimated $150 billion annually. Keeping victims isolated and largely hidden from society is key for traffickers to be able to sustain their lucrative profits. While the number of traffickers that face charges for their crimes has increased slightly, seeking legal action against third party accessories to this crime is a new, increasingly popular tactic for victims and law enforcement.

To help identify potential trafficking cases, Senator Cornyn introduced the Abolish Human Trafficking Act of 2017, a reauthorization and update of many of the provisions in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and subsequent bills. It recently passed the Senate. The bill includes grant funding assigned to strengthen enforcement efforts—specifically, to investigate and prosecute those second-hand perpetrators who knowingly benefit financially from human trafficking and do nothing to stop it, as well as develop a curriculum to train officers to identify and investigate them. Having additional grant funding set aside specifically for identifying and prosecuting those who knowingly benefit from the abuse of others has the potential to be widely successful.

Prosecutors are already overwhelmed by their caseloads and often unable to prioritize human trafficking cases, since they are harder to identify and require more resources to prosecute. Without adequate funding, or the time to explore potential cases and deepen expertise, prosecutors are unable to focus attention on identifying cases, let alone perpetrators and accessories.

To ensure that those benefiting from human trafficking are held accountable, the bill calls for a Human Trafficking Justice Coordinator to be appointed in each U.S. Attorney’s office. This coordinator would focus primarily on trafficking cases, gaining expertise in investigating and prosecuting even the most convoluted cases, and building partnerships between local and federal law enforcement, as well as victim service providers to gain the expertise and access necessary to identify and investigate trafficking.

This partnership of greater resources and focused prosecutors would flip the risk-reward equation, not only for traffickers, but for those who profit from their crimes second hand. Congress should pass the critically important Abolish Human Trafficking Act, which in addition to authorizing grant funding for prosecuting third party participants, prioritizes a victim-centered approach to investigating and prosecuting trafficking crimes.

No one should benefit, financially or otherwise, from the exploitation of human beings. In the Los Angeles and Philadelphia cases, it was not only the traffickers contributing to the horrible abuse, but also these hotel owners who stood by and stayed silent, choosing instead to line their pockets. Passing this legislation would give legal footing to the practice of holding third party participants accountable, signaling to others the risk of staying silent and benefiting from modern slavery.