A trio of bills before the County Council aim to address human trafficking in the county through the lodging, housing and business industries.
The bills, which the council discussed Tuesday, would require hotels and motels to conduct human trafficking training for new employees, hold landlords and tenants liable for criminal charges for knowingly allowing human trafficking to occur on property, and regulate “bodyworks” establishments, which are relatively common locations for human trafficking. The bills largely came from the recommendations of the human trafficking task force that convened in 2016.
The landlord and tenant bill would would make it unlawful for any tenant or landlord or property owner to knowingly sublease, assign, transfer possession, or permit use of an apartment for the purposes of human trafficking.
The bill would apply only after a landlord, landlord agent, management staff, or property owner has been notified by law enforcement of a potential problem and allows the activity to continue without taking any action.
Prince George’s County has successfully implemented this bill and has seen success in shutting down some cases of human trafficking, according to the task force. In and around the city of Frederick, law enforcement has also seen more cases of apartments being used for this purpose, according to the report.
Violators could be fined up to $1,000 or sentenced to six months behind bars for each offense. However, the goal of the bill isn’t to punish the landlords, but to get them to come into compliance by evicting the tenants or reporting actions to police, Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater said.
Councilman Kirby Delauter expressed concerns regarding how law enforcement could prove that a landlord is knowingly allowing human trafficking to occur on a property, and that point seems open to interpretation. Lindsey Carpenter, an assistant state’s attorney and task force member, said the intent of the bill is aimed at locations where law enforcement is routinely called, where the “landlord is turning a blind eye.”
However, Eric Byers, of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, said law enforcement is not looking at how many notifications it has given a landlord, but rather if the landlord is “actively involved” in the operation. This bill allows law enforcement to make an arrest if the landlord is part of the human trafficking process, Byers said.
Councilman Billy Shreve questioned the need for the bill, given that there is a similar state law already on the books. Fitzwater said she would review the state law to see if the county’s bill duplicates it before she brings it back for first reading.
The hotel and motel bill would require hotels and motels to have new employees watch a training video to learn to spot signs of human trafficking and take a quiz. Lodging establishments would be required to annually certify that all employees have completed the requisite training. Training would be disseminated by the Human Relations Department and annual certifications would be checked during the Independent Internal Audit Authority’s hotel audit they already complete for the county’s hotel tax.
Councilman Tony Chmelik recommended adding a clause that specifies a minimum and maximum time requirement to ensure that new employees receive the appropriate training, but also so the bill doesn’t become too financially onerous for the business.
Heather Moreno, of Heartly House in Frederick, said she has sat through the hotel training video and quiz and estimated that it took about 30 minutes.
The national hotline for human trafficking reported that 80 percent of human trafficking victims come into contact with hotels or motels.
The third bill defines and regulates “bodywork” businesses. The bill sets fees and penalties, and requires licensing by the county, which would require inspection by the Planning and Permitting Division and local law enforcement in order to open a bodywork business.
It provides an additional tool for the sheriff’s office and the state’s attorney’s office when charging and prosecuting those involved in human trafficking crimes in these types of establishments. The city of Frederick and Montgomery County both already require bodyworks establishments to obtain a license.
A bodywork establishment is any business that advertises services including acupressure and reflexology or “where any employee, agent, or contractor, who is not a certified massage therapist or registered massage practitioner under state law, performs bodywork on an individual,” according to the bill.
While human trafficking has become a growing problem in Frederick County, there is little localized data, according to the task force.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline reported 161 calls from Maryland in 2016. However, using calls to hotlines as a metric provides limited information that is not specific to Frederick County. In another statewide effort to obtain data, the Victim Services Subcommittee for the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force surveyed 11 agencies identifying and providing services to 396 survivors of trafficking in 2014. Their results showed an 82 percent increase from the 217 survivors identified and served in 2013.
And while these bills aren’t likely to stop every instance of human trafficking in the county, they can provide extra levels of enforcement, Fitzwater said.
“The goal here is we want to make it unappealing for traffickers to be in Frederick County,” Marino said.