Minnesota law enforcement agencies could gain a new ally in the fight against sex trafficking.

Under a measure at the State Capitol, hotel and motel operators would be required to train employees to detect signs of sex trafficking, and report incidents to law enforcement.

“The hope … is that it would raise awareness to the extent that employees would be able to take more pre-emptive action,” said Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Ramsey, main author of the House bill. In the Senate, Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is a cosponsor of the proposal.

The legislation would require operators to train employees within 90 days of hiring. Hotels and motels would have to regularly conduct awareness campaigns to keep employees up to date on training. Operators would bear any costs related to the education.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Lodging Association would determine the content of the training and how it’s administered. The department would warn, fine and eventually suspend the license of hotels that refuse to enforce the training, Whelan said.

“The consequences would be the same as if they violated something else,” she said. Whelan’s proposal is modeled after a similar law passed in Connecticut in 2016. House and Senate floor votes on the measure are expected soon.

Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Lodging Association, said many state hotels already offer such training.

Hotels and motels are open to Whelan’s proposal, McElroy said, as it would be easy to comply with.

“We normally don’t love new mandates, but we also hate having all crime in our hotels, and particularly sex crimes in our hotels,” he said. “The big cost here is in the time, but there’s also a return on investment if we can keep crime out of our hotels.”

Lori Paul is the communications and development specialist for the St. Paul nonprofit Breaking Free, which offers services to victims of prostitution and sex trafficking. She said traffickers prefer to use hotels because they’re difficult to track.

“[Hotels and motels are] an easy, quick place to come and go and not really leave a mark,” she said.

Paul said she was unknowingly lured by a trafficker when she was in her early 20s. It started with a man who made romantic advances toward her. He wooed her with gifts and dates and quickly gained her trust.

Then he took her to a hotel. Paul, 56, cannot recall the events that followed but said the realization of what happened left her “broken.”

“Often what happens is these men will play like they’re a boyfriend and they lure you slowly that way,” she said. “In my case, they went for my vulnerability, which was wanting to be loved.”

Traffickers display “textbook” behavior that hotel and motel workers could detect if given the proper training, Paul said.

“The potential to stop this is immense with this one bill,” she said. “This is probably one of the boldest moves to stop [sex trafficking].”

 

Ryan Faircloth is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.