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Travis County endorses new penalties for illegal massage parlors

Wednesday, December 23, 2020 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court has unanimously voted to adopt an ordinance authorizing injunctions and civil remedies against illicit massage parlors operating in the county.

The proposed legislation targets the organizers, owners and operators of the illegal commercial operations, whereas previously the county code made it easier to enforce against individuals directly involved in the act.

Commissioner Brigid Shea, whose office along with the Travis County Attorney’s Office helped to develop the ordinance, presided over the discussion at the Tuesday, Dec. 22 meeting of the Commissioners Court.

“Although popular culture perceives them to be harmless, evidence suggests that many of the thousands of women working in them are victims of human trafficking,” Shea said of the parlors.

Rochelle Keyhan, an attorney and human trafficking victim advocate, is the CEO of Collective Liberty. She reported on research done by the organization, a nonprofit that works to permanently end systems that enable human trafficking.

“We identified over 9,000 illicit massage parlors across the country,” Keyhan said. “To get serious on this issue and tackle it from multiple avenues including civil enforcement is so important, and I really applaud this effort.”

While most of the victims are initially trafficked into New York and California, Keyhan explained, they are transferred in large numbers to Texas and Florida. Texas has the fourth-highest concentration of illegal massage parlors in the country, behind California, New York and Florida.

“Our main effort has been around ensuring that the laws focus on trafficking and exploitation, and avoid creating additional burden and impact on the potential victims,” she said.

In addition to voicing support for the ordinance, Keyhan recommended additional followup training for enforcement investigators and a stronger focus on civil laws enforcing massage business operating standards, like hours of operation, transparency of the rules around the building entrances and exits, and licensing requirements.

“These protect professional massage therapists and their customers while simultaneously making it more difficult and less lucrative to sell sex under the guise of a massage business,” Keyhan explained.

One of the criticisms from advocates of the Travis County legislation is that it doesn’t make the necessary call-outs, or emphasize the appropriate civil laws, that would make it easier to implement the ordinance.

“As drafted, it requires evidence, essentially, that the commercial sex is happening, which does require extensive investigation,” Keyhan said. “Whereas, in major cities like Houston, San Francisco and D.C., they have a part of their ordinance discussing the hours of operation, because no legitimate massage business would be open at 2 a.m.”

Keyhan highlighted the need for two other requirements: Prohibiting people living on-site and requiring that front doors remain open at all times at the establishments.

County Judge Andy Brown asked the Commissioners Court for clarification as to whether both the civil remedies and the class A misdemeanor, as outlined by the ordinance, would apply exclusive liability to the owners and operators of the parlors, or if the individuals directly involved would also be liable.

While Shea reassured the commissioners that the penalties were intended exclusively for operators, Tom Nuckols, a County Attorney present at the meeting, said, “it is certainly aimed at the owner and the operator. I can’t say categorically it doesn’t create liability for any others.”

Shea motioned to approve the legislation, Commissioner Margaret Gómez seconded, and the motion was unanimously passed.

Photo by Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This story has been changed to correctly attribute the work of Collective Liberty and the role of Rochelle Keyhan in the organization.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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