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Human trafficking victims urge Florida Senate to pass bill

State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation

Human trafficking opponents held a rally in Tampa Tuesday to demand the state legislature pass a bill that would allow human trafficking victims to sue the hotels that turn a blind eye to their plight.

The bill appeared to be headed towards passage in the Senate when its sponsor, state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, mysteriously stalled the bill last week, effectively killing it.

"We know that Sen. Lauren Book has been a great advocate and that in her heart of hearts, she truly believes in the bill," said Tampa attorney Karina I. Perez, who has represented a number of human trafficking victims. "We can only assume the bill stalled because of politicas as usual and lobbyists."

They urged people to call state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, to hold another Senate Rules Committee to hear the bill. The bill would need to pass that committee before making it to the Senate floor.

But Benacquisto shot down the idea Tuesday, saying that lots of people have asked her to told another Rules committee.

"We’re not going to do that for any issue," she said. "I think we’re coming toward the close of our legislative session."

Benacquisto blamed Book for postponing her own bill, and she speculated that Book did it because she was preoccupied by the events in Parkland.

"She is in charge of her legislative package," Benacquisto said. "And I think the events of the last two weeks have really shaped her final days in the legislative process, and I think that is very valuable."

Book said she postponed the bill out of fear it wouldn't pass the House. It has the support of Speaker Richard Corcoran, but it's stalled and hasn't been taken up on the House floor.

Perez said the hotel industry, "incredibly," wants immunity from civil liability in exchange for training employees on the indicators of human trafficking. Those indicators including noting when young women or men arrive with older adults who don't appear to be their parents, guests who stay in a room for five days or more and decline service, and guests who ask for the phone to be removed.

"Providing immunity to hotels would be worse than having no law at all in our state," Perez said. "If we provided civil liberty to the hotel industry, we would create a safe haven in Florida where hotels would be allowed to profit off of human trafficking without any fear of consequence."

They also want Disney, the leader of the hospitality industry, to take a stand on the issue and be clear on its position. The victim advocates are convinced workers can lend a watchful eye and help curb trafficking. One survivor, Edie Rhea, said during her ordeal, she wondered how no one could see the signs of her suffering.

"There were many times I wanted to scream, shout, say what was going on, but I couldn't," Rhea said. "But I'm sure my body languague, my facial expressions told what was going on in those rooms, the horrific things.

"I guess the question now is are we going to see those children and are we going to help them."