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No Vacancy for Human Traffickers

In July 2018, a study conducted by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Polaris revealed that 80 percent of forced commercial sex acts occur at a motel or hotel. Not only were the properties utilized for the actual sex crimes, but traffickers also used them to hold their victims in captivity. Budget motels were identified as the venue of choice for these crimes in 2000—and remain popular for such purposes even today.

Human trafficking can only be described as one of the most deplorable exploitations of globally vulnerable and highly at-risk individuals. Every year, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) presents Congress with a report on the National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking. The federal definition for human trafficking purposely includes commercial sex exploitation, and states have adopted similar language in statutes criminalizing these actions. Despite legislative attempts, global human trafficking generates an estimated $150 billion annually, with commercial sexual exploitation accounting for $99 billion, according to the International Labor Organization’s 2014 report Profits and Pove​rty: The Economics of Forced Labour​.

Sex trafficking victims’ accounts identified security failures and inadequacies that allowed the victims to either remain captive—in some cases for years at a time—or meet with traffickers and customers at the budget motel. Victims were also subject to roughly 10 to 20 violators per day, who paid traffickers to have sex with the victims. Each time, the trafficker, victim, and violators entered and left the premises undetected.

In the context of human trafficking cases and budget motels, tremendous efforts to tackle this epidemic have been made over the past couple of decades. The annual DOJ report details the federal government’s efforts and proactive steps to combat the global human trafficking criminal network; but even with the department prosecuting these cases for more than 20 years, more prosecutions, heftier penalties levied upon traffickers, and improved services for victims did not occur until the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. Seven years after the law’s ratification, the DOJ formed the Human Trafficking Protection Unit (HTPU) under the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, tasked with consolidating the expertise under one umbrella and taking on multijurisdictional and international prosecutions.

However, until recently, budget motel operators and the hotel industry, whether silent or simply ignorant of these matters, remained largely on the sidelines, excluded from federal and legislative efforts to curb human trafficking—making it difficult to thwart the continued exploitation of these victims.


Year after year, budget motels are the preferred venue for human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which hosts a confidential hotline service (NHTH) for victims and survivors, reported 6,656 phone calls on the hotline, emails, and online tips received from 1 January 2012 to 31 December 2016. Of those calls, 2,386 of them provided enough information to identify an instance of potential trafficking. Of the 2,181 cases of identified sex trafficking, 1,755—more than 80 percent—involved a hotel or motel.

According to the NHTH, an NGO funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, even though budget motels are frequently selected by traffickers, motel owners may or may not be aware of how their businesses are used to perpetuate these crimes.

A number of studies show that these crimes occur most frequently at motels, thanks to the anonymity of the industry’s business model, which includes a lack of policies and procedures to document criminal incidents. As a result, the most overt and heinous crimes are permitted to occur on these motel properties.

For example, in May 2018, three men were charged in Florida for human trafficking. Police responding to a call about a man with a gun outside a Super 8 motel room ultimately discovered two women being trafficked and sold for sex.

And as recently as February 2019, The Palm Beach Post reported on a woman responsible for sex-trafficking girls in South Florida. The woman admitted to living in area short-term rentals and motel rooms with more than five underage girls, one of whom was likely only 13 years old.

Other incidents take years and coordination between multiple agencies to uncover, such as with a trafficker arrested in 2017, who lured young women for at least two years with the promise of work in Florida. Instead, using threats of physical harm, he forced the women into sex trafficking. The trafficker paid for multiple rooms on the same date and, by one victim’s account, used a hotel room as a classroom to educate a victim on how to sell her body for sex. The trafficker secured a room above the first floor to avoid attention and obtained a second key to the room so as to enter and collect the money.

In addition to the global initiative to combat human trafficking, the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) aimed to assist state and local law enforcement, providing information and grant resources to combat violent crime in localized areas throughout the country. In 2005, COPS researched and developed guidelines for local law enforcement and municipalities, including one that specifically addresses issues at budget motels, Disorder at Budget Motels.

To create effective guidelines for local law enforcement, COPS focused on a general risk assessment of budget motels. The results showed that the main contributing factors attributed to budget motels included: disturbances; domestic violence; theft; auto theft and theft from vehicles; public drinking; vandalism; prostitution; drug dealing and use; fights; clandestine drug-lab operations; sexual assault; and robbery.

Our law firm experienced the consequences of not having budget motel operators as part of the collaborative effort to combat sex trafficking. We represented two parents in a civil wrongful death suit against a budget motel in Hialeah, Florida, after their 30-year-old daughter was raped, beaten, and murdered by a drunken non-guest who came to the motel for a prostitute. Although the man was visibly intoxicated and not a guest of the motel, the clerk sold him beer and directed him to where he might find a prostitute. The same clerk did not assist the victim, Yaimi, to enter the room she was staying in, unable to confirm who rented it. Ultimately, the drunken man killed Yaimi 12 minutes after the clerk refused to help her.

The motel operator in Yaimi’s case, who owned a second budget motel about a mile away, had turned a blind eye to human trafficking practices on the properties for years. A few years prior to Yaimi’s murder, law enforcement was called out to one of the properties to investigate a disturbance. The police arrived and discovered two teenage girls forced into sex trafficking at both motels, where they had in fact been recruited.


States have attempted to curb human trafficking by passing legislation and mandating training for budget motel operators, threatening them with fines or forfeiture of their occupational licenses if they do not comply. Some states now hold budget motel operators civilly liable by granting the victims certain rights, including the ability to allege that the operator failed to protect them from forced sex slavery, but the lodging industry could fight back against such laws.

Alabama passed a law requiring budget motels to train employees on identifying signs of sex trafficking, and imposed civil penalties if they fail to do so with a certain period of time. The law also provides operators with immunity from civil liability if there is a good faith effort to train employees and implement sex trafficking prevention policies.

Pennsylvania enacted its first law allowing victims the right to sue those who indirectly profit from their trafficking. This led to a lawsuit involving a girl previously forced into sex trafficking when she was 14 years old. The complaint alleged that the girl, held captive in a budget motel for two years, was forced to have sex with men several times a day. The budget motel claimed they were unaware of the girl’s captivity and related status as a sex trafficking victim. Although the case could hopefully lead to a framework for future state legislation, the facts of the case indicate a long road ahead. ​


Despite the commendable efforts by state and federal law enforcement, as well as social services agencies, the front line needs to be reinforced. Taking the initiative to raise awareness is crucial. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to security professionals in the hospitality industry, ones that could further erode the current state of this criminal industry.

Using federal grants, the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) created the Enhanced Collaborative Model Task Force in 2010. However, local task forces are not enough; the locales in which commercial venues are targeted by traffickers for the actual commercial sex act need to become a part of the collaboration.

“There is no easy fix, but combating modern-day slavery starts with awareness,” Marriott’s Chief Global Human Resources Officer David Rodriguez said. The hotel group recently finished implementing and training half a million of its employees in how to recognize human trafficking. Working in conjunction with Polaris, the same NGO studying the financial scope of human trafficking, Marriott’s project took about two years to complete.

Despite the difference in room rates between Marriott and budget motels, the hotel’s decision to incorporate policies and use resources available to hospitality businesses proved useful. The Marriott program successfully led to the arrest and incarceration of a man who was using the lobby of a London branch to meet and groom an underage girl, proving that lodging clients can be part of the solution, but only with the utilization of the available resources.

The concern over potential civil lawsuits from victims of sex trafficking, or by families of victims like Yaimi, makes budget motel operators wary about voluntary participation. Certain steps can be taken to combat sex trafficking at budget motels that are simply good policies and should be embraced by such venues as a component of their corporate responsibility.

The ECPAT-USA is an NGO that has been working to end the commercial, sexual exploitation of children for more than 25 years. The group focuses on promoting corporate responsibility by providing resources for training staff to look for signs of sex trafficking. The organization offers businesses and their security professionals a checklist that meshes with a company’s existing overall security plan.

The ECPAT-USA Anti-Trafficking Hotel Checklist has two categories: management and associates. Some of the items impact various businesses differently. For instance, a large hotel chain may not have an issue with implementing a no-cash policy for room rentals, but a large percentage of budget motels’ revenue consists of cash payments, giving such venues’ operators concerns over implementing a similar policy. As a compromise to this policy, budget motel operators could instead require photo IDs upon registering for a room and maintain a copy. Another suggested policy is running daily cash room rental reports.

Security professionals should train associates on how to monitor guests and take action if one or more of the following occurs: guests who specifically request rooms near exits; guests with visitors who stay in the vehicle; multiple guests visiting the same room; and guests who refuse to show government-issued photo identification or register their visitors.

On the management side of anti­-trafficking policies, ECPAT-USA calls for mandatory vehicle information and photo ID at check-in; strategic placement of security cameras to capture guests walking in and out of the lobby and in the parking areas; establishing law enforcement contacts in anti-human-trafficking task forces and allowing access to the premises to investigate; and blocking Internet access to popular websites for online sex ads.

Budget motel operators provide rooms at low cost and on an hourly basis. This is a reality that is unlikely to change. Leaders and security professionals working against human trafficking should aim at making these businesses partners in the fight against sex trafficking in a way that is workable with their business model and transforming them into the last line of defense to prevent incidences of sex trafficking.


MICHAEL HAGGARD is the managing partner for The Haggard Law Firm, specializing in negligent security, wrongful death, unsafe premises, and pool drowning. Haggard continuously lobbies for permanent solutions and change through local, statewide, and federal legislation. JASON BRENNER is a partner and has worked for The Haggard Law Firm since 2010. Brenner has worked on cases dealing with negligent security, auto accidents, wrongful death, and personal injury.