The Public Eye

Sacramento County targets illicit massage parlors with prostitution ties

Arden Arcade and neighboring suburbs have become hotspots for massage parlors serving as prostitution fronts, thanks to plenty of cheap retail space with high visibility, Sacramento County officials say.

The county has shut down 17 massage parlors in the last two years for code violations and other illegal activity, and all but three were in the northern suburbs. And those closures touch only the surface of the problem, according to law enforcement officials.

Concern about covert prostitution led the Legislature this year to give local government more land-use authority over massage parlors. Sacramento County planning staff members want to take advantage of the law, but they’re running up against strong opposition from massage therapists.

The Board of Supervisors early next year will consider requiring massage establishments to obtain a “minor-use permit,” which would give the county more authority over whether they can operate and greater ability to penalize them when violations occur, said principal planner Tricia Stevens. Supervisors will also consider adding a $1,000 fee to pay for the cost of the review needed for the permit.

During two board meetings, several massage therapists complained about the proposed fee, saying it would come on top of what they already pay for a business license and state certification. Some supervisors said they share the objections and question whether the proposal will help root out prostitution.

Brenda Pitts, a state-certified massage therapist, said she distinguishes her business in a professional building in Arden Arcade from the illegal parlors that typically occupy less attractive strip malls. She considers the county proposal an affront to her status as a professional.

“We do not want to see the illicit sex trade,” Pitts said. “But we don’t want an unwelcome burden on our legitimate businesses.”

Massage therapists have the option of receiving certification from the California Massage Therapy Council, a nonprofit agency established under state law. The council conducts criminal background checks on applicants. If a therapist does not have certification, he or she must receive a background check from the Sheriff’s Department.

Guy Fuson, tax and license manager for Sacramento County, estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the more than 160 massage establishments in the unincorporated county are involved in prostitution. He based that estimate in part on the number of parlors where he revoked licenses after the Sheriff’s Department investigated them.

Fuson, who serves on the Massage Therapy Council board, and other local officials across California have raised questions about an industry that has grown rapidly despite the recession. In Sacramento County, the number of licensed massage facilities has grown by 30 percent since 2008.

That year, the state approved a massage therapy law “that had serious unintended consequences, with bad actors masquerading as legitimate massage professionals exploiting loopholes in current law to insulate themselves against the ability of local governments and law enforcement to shut them down,” wrote Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, in a statement included in a committee analysis of her massage bill this year. The 2008 law effectively stopped local government from regulating therapists, while Bonilla’s law explicitly restored that authority.

Supervisor Susan Peters, who represents Arden Arcade, said reports about illicit massage parlors are one of the most common complaints received by her office. “We’re trying to legitimize the field,” she told therapists at a recent board meeting.

Last year, Opening Doors Inc., a Sacramento nonprofit that helps victims of human trafficking, completed a report on sex in the county’s massage parlors. The organization searched adult-oriented websites and interviewed employees of massage parlors and agencies that work with trafficking victims. The report concluded that “sex trafficking may be taking place behind the doors of local massage parlors.”

The report distinguished sex trafficking from prostitution, with the former involving the transport of women across borders for the sex trade. Elisabet Medina, a program manager at Opening Doors, said that since the report was completed, three trafficking victims who worked at local massage parlors have been referred to the agency for services.

The report’s authors reviewed websites that publish reviews from massage parlor customers. The authors found 87 massage parlors in Sacramento County on these sites, and 48 had at least two reviews “suggesting or explicitly stating they had received sexual services in the last year.”

The Internet is one place the Sheriff’s Department looks to find illicit massage parlors, Sgt. Jason Ramos said. With greater resources, he said, the department could regularly conduct enforcement action against illicit massage parlors, but such efforts are time-consuming because they require coordination with other county agencies. That’s because the goal is to put the parlors out of business and not just arrest someone for prostitution, he said.

The department builds cases on code violations and other infractions because an owner can deny involvement with an individual busted for prostitution and possibly stay in business, Ramos said.

“Make no mistake – they’re all over the place,” Ramos said. “We could hit a couple of them every week.”

Ramos said the department supports the county’s effort to add enforcement tools but also recognizes the hardship created by the $1,000 permit fee.

Supervisors Phil Serna and Roberta MacGlashan have expressed opposition to the permit requirement. “It would punish legitimate operators without necessarily eliminating the nonlegitimate operators,” MacGlashan said.

Supervisor Peters said she wants more detail about how revenue from the licensing fee would be spent, in hopes that the fee can be lowered.

Principal planner Stevens said the county will meet with massage therapists to try to find a compromise. One option is to exempt certified massage therapists, who are required to receive 500 hours of education and training, but to require a permit for certified massage practitioners, who are required to have half as much education and training.

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.