The latest in a string of massage parlor arrests happened recently in Hallandale Beach, where three women were arrested on charges of prostitution, earning money from prostitution and practicing health care without a license.
Our Broward criminal defense lawyers know that while prostitution is generally a misdemeanor offense – which means you aren’t automatically afforded an attorney – many law enforcement agencies are going after these crimes as felonies by attempting to spin them as instances of human trafficking.
It was on this basis back in January that officials with the Florida State Massage Therapy Association teamed up with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. The goal is specifically to shut down so called “Oriental massage” parlors in which those practicing massage therapy aren’t actually licensed. At some of these locations it’s believe women, mostly Chinese nationals, have been held against their will and forced to engage in sex acts with clients.
The state of Florida requires that massage therapists have some 500 hours of experience and applying for a license is contingent upon passing a state board examination. The entire process costs between $10,000 and $20,000.
In the last several months, the task force has received more than five dozen reports of massage parlors that were either illegally operated or that were promoting prostitution.
But it’s not just unlicensed facilities that are getting caught up. In the course of these investigations, the board has revoked about 20 massage licenses, while another 55 have been voluntarily surrendered.
From a defense standpoint, the approach would be different, depending on which party we were defending. For someone accused of prostitution, we might argue that such action was not undertaken willfully and that this individual was a victim more than anything else.
A first-time prostitution offense carries a 60-day jail term, though most of our prostitution clients don’t end up serving anywhere near that. If we can prove that our client was a human trafficking victim, the charges could be dropped entirely.
However, with the defense of a massage parlor owner, more resources and an aggressive approach would be required, particularly if the individual is charged with human trafficking.
Florida Statute 796.045 holds that any person who knowingly recruits, harbors, entices, transports or obtains a person with the knowledge that coercion, fraud or force will be used to cause that individual to engage in prostitution, will be found guilty of a second-degree felony, which is punishable by 15 years in prison per count. That charge is bumped up to a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, if the individual procured is 14 or younger.
In the most recent case, the trio of women arrested were in their 30s and 40s. The arrest followed a sting operation involving two undercover officers.
In the first instance, the undercover officer entered the business early last month and was told to go into a back room, disrobe and lie on the massage table. He was given a massage on his back for about a half an hour before being instructed to turn over. Within a few minutes, he reported, the female masseuse offered to perform a sex act on him. He asked how much it would cost and she replied the cost was “a good tip.” He then said next time and the session quickly ended.
The next time, about three weeks later another officer paid $70 for an hour-long massage. The same reported scenario unfolded.
The arrests were initiated about a week later.