HOUSTON – A trio of bills filed this legislative session is targeting the Houston area's myriad massage parlors and 24-spas that law enforcement officials say are fronts for prostitution and human trafficking.
"There's no doubt that we have more than our fair share here in Houston," said Dr. Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of Children At Risk. "There are more of these sexually oriented businesses, these massage parlors, than there are Starbucks in our city."
Sanborn's organization helped get the bills filed this legislative session. All three target so-called massage parlors and 24-hour spas operating without a state license.
"It makes our communities less safe, these places are cash-only so they are a huge target for armed robbery," said Jamey Caruthers, senior staff attorney for Children At Risk.
Caruthers said that the proposed bills will help counties and cities have an easier time proving that a business is a front for prostitution when it comes to getting it shut down under nuisance laws. Typically, this is a cumbersome process involving months of undercover work and numerous arrests.
"That's the tool that local governments use most often to go after these places," said Caruthers.
If passed, one of the laws would make it so a single prostitution arrest would be enough to prove that such an establishment is an illegal business disguised as a massage parlor. Right now, it's up to individual courts to decide how many prostitution arrests are enough to have a business shut down.
"For some courts, evidence of one prostitution arrest is good enough, that's a nuisance. Others, a dozen isn't enough," said Caruthers.
Running an unlicensed massage parlor is already illegal, but another proposed bill would also give the state the authority to go after the business for deceptive trade practices.
"That means the state can come in, and every time they do this, the state can ding them for $25,000 plus attorney fees," said Caruthers.
Caruthers is one of several recently "deputized" county attorneys who have been brought onboard to help County Attorney Vince Ryan go after dozens of these businesses. Officials with the county attorney's office said that in the next week to ten days, the office will begin sending notices to unlicensed massage parlors to voluntarily shut down or face lawsuits.