New law targets human trafficking at Wisconsin hotels

Published: Mar. 30, 2018 at 3:44 PM CDT
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Investigators and victim advocates think a new bill Governor Scott Walker signed into law at the end of March will make a big difference in human trafficking.

It's all about reaching traffickers and survivors faster.

"We are constantly getting more referrals for the Rose Home, and we can't keep up," says Dawn Spang, outreach coordinator for the non-profit organization Eye Heart World.

The Rose Home is Northeast Wisconsin's place of hope for human trafficking survivors.

Opened only about five months ago, Spang sees transformations happening already.

"From entering the home, that they can't even make a decision about what to eat for breakfast, because they've been told what to do from what to wear, what to eat, when to wake up, when to go to sleep, to going to a restaurant, deciding what they want to eat, and ordering from the server," she says, describing what is a big milestone for survivors.

But getting to that point often takes repeated attempts, and most likely, the work of law enforcement arresting the traffickers.

We've shown you how quickly it all happens.

"Hotels, that's where a lot of the Backpage and Craigslist stuff is happening, and being able to get that sooner is so important, because otherwise, if they get any whiff that law enforcement is around or asking questions, they are out the door," says Spang. "So the fact that these subpoena powers can happen same day is awesome."

Act 173 speeds up the whole process, giving Wisconsin Department of Justice investigators administrative subpoena powers.

It's a technical way of saying a court can order an internet service provider or hotel to release a name and address of a person investigators have received a tip on or have under investigation for human trafficking.

The Department of Justice can then act on tips immediately, getting a name, address and length of stay for the person renting a hotel room.

"We're not able to get the entire guest registry for the entire hotel. It's very narrow. We have to be very specific in what we're looking for, which room, that kind of thing," says Matt Joy, director of the Wisconsin Department of Justice Human Trafficking Bureau. "It's very basic information, but again, very useful to help us focus our efforts and get on the right track."

Investigators are convinced this will help, though, because the state granted these same kind of subpoena powers in Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) cases about a year ago.

Joy says that drastically changed their ability to pinpoint criminal activity almost immediately.

"We've developed information about a particular IP address. We've gotten the administrative subpoena that same day. We've gotten the response from the service provider that same day, and we've arrested a bad guy that same day. Same day, that's unheard of," says Joy.

The Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association put its support behind this, telling lawmakers it allows them to help without potential liability, writing in a letter

But Spang says hotels here are taking it further.

We saw them training employees to spot human trafficking last year.

Spang says they're now being proactive, even checking online activity.

"If they see a female that they recognize from Backpage or Craigslist checking into their hotel, they're calling law enforcement or they're saying to that particular person, hey, we know what you're doing and you can't do it here, which is amazing," adds Spang.