Tampa City Council considers cracking down on human trafficking in massage parlors

10/12/12 Janelle Irwin
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Catching human trafficking rings is difficult because investigators often have a hard time tying prostitution to the broader organizations. In a Tampa City Council meeting last week, city attorneys laid out plans to create business regulations on massage parlors where the groups often operate.

Katherine O’Donniley is an attorney who specializes in human trafficking cases. She said there are several key consistencies in organized prostitution rings that localities can use in drafting ordinances.

“Women found in brothels disguised as massage parlors typically live on sight where they are confined and coerced into providing commercial sex to six to ten men a day, seven days a week. These locations, often known as Asian massage parlors or Korean massage parlors, operate as commercial-front brothels that claim to offer legitimate services such as massage, but they actually, primarily provide commercial sex.”

O’Donniley said women in the massage parlors who are forced to have sex with numerous partners get caught and arrested, but they are actually the victims. Rebecca Kurt, a Tampa city attorney, said even though there are laws in place to address the prostitution, that isn’t enough to tie it to human trafficking cases.

“Because you may have a lot of prostitution cases, but tying that back to the actual business and imputing that knowledge can be problematic. So, what we’ve talked about at least from a starting point, is trying to eliminate some of the business practices that are conducive to that illegal behavior.”

Last month alone, the state suspended 81 massage licenses for being illegally obtained under suspicions of human trafficking, but as of now, the city of Tampa doesn’t have any of their own regulations to track it down at the local level. Kurt said the city can do its part in making it harder for the businesses to operate.

“…create a business regulation for massage parlors that prohibits the 24-hours of operation by setting times that they can operate as well as prohibiting residing at the business. As I said earlier, we currently have a number of tools that are already on the books – prostitution in illegal; if we make a number of prostitution cases we can, in fact, bring them to the public nuisance abatement board where they can put additional restrictions on the business. But I do believe this will be an additional, effective tool. It will be a first step.”

City Council members spent little time discussing the issue and instead all just nodded. Council member Lisa Montelione mentioned a television show where a detective made tracking down human trafficking a priority.

“They’ve done two different episodes – one ten years ago and one now. So, it’s an issue that doesn’t seem to be corrected or go away even with the best efforts. I guess what concerns me is we’re just getting started now. I know you said it doesn’t mean we haven’t been doing anything in the past, but I’m happy to see that we’re doubling up the efforts.”

City Council will bring the matter up again at their November 1 meeting where city staff will present language for an ordinance.

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