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Draft Billings city law to regulate massage businesses, fight human trafficking moves ahead

Posted at 12:58 AM, Jan 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-20 02:59:53-05

BILLINGS — With a 9-2 vote in the Billings City Council Tuesday, a proposed ordinance to regulate massage businesses with a goal to cut down on human trafficking in the city took its next step to becoming law.

The Council voted to direct city staff to place the draft ordinance on a future regular Council meeting agenda for a first reading. Ordinances usually have two readings in the Council before they're adopted into city code. City Administrator Chris Kukulski said the Council's agendas are packed for the next few regular meetings and it could be four weeks before time is available.

The ordinance would require all massage business owners to obtain a specific business license from the city at a cost of $55 per year. Massage business owners would also need to submit a background check and fingerprint of themselves to the city to obtain the business license.

The ordinance would give inspectors in city Code Enforcement the authority to go into massage businesses during business hours to ensure the owner is operating the business in accordance with the ordinance.

The ordinance prohibits practices often used by illicit massage businesses that operate as hubs for sex work and human trafficking.

Some prohibited conduct called out for massage businesses in the ordinance include: allowing employees to provide massage without being fully clothed, requiring nudity as part of massage without client's consent, distributing advertising that would suggest the business offers sexual service, and operating the massage business within the hours of 10 p.m. - 6 a.m., among others.

The ordinance is complaint-driven, so it falls on Code Enforcement staff to evaluate the validity of the complaint and if found non-compliant, department staff could revoke the owner's massage business license.

The ordinance offers a low-cost option to get illicit massage businesses out of the city when compared with police investigations which could take years to come to fruition, Kukulski said.

“It’s a business license and therefore it’s a code compliance issue with a lower cost barrier than a criminal investigation," Kukulski said.

Stephanie Baucus, attorney and founder of the Yellowstone County Human Trafficking Task Force presented the proposed ordinance to the Council, along with Gina Dahl, interim city attorney and Kukulski.

The ordinance was originally brought forward in 2017 by former Council member Ryan Sullivan. Baucus said while drafting the ordinance, the Yellowstone County Human Trafficking Task Force worked in partnership with City Council members, city police and legal departments, and local legal massage business owners.

In her presentation, Baucus noted FBI data from 2017 showing Billings had the most online advertisements in the top six web sites for illicit massage businesses compared any other city in the state at about 19,000. The next highest was Bozeman at 5,100 ads, then Missoula with 4,600.

In the same year, the FBI estimated 15-27 illicit massage businesses operating in the city.

"These are bad places. Not only are we talking about federal human trafficking, we're talking about sex trafficking, prostitution, pimping, aggravated pimping, the federal Mann Act, which is transporting a person across state lines to engage in criminal activity," Baucus said.

The proposed ordinance would provide another avenue to prosecute the owners of illicit massage businesses. Baucus said there are various state and federal laws that are already being violated by the illicit massage owners, but proving them culpable of the crimes associated with human trafficking is costly difficult for law enforcement to peruse.

“These cases are hard to prove. The victims are often not cooperative. They are very expensive to investigate. The city of Billings has no officers that are solely devoted to human trafficking. Before 2019, the state had no officers devoted to human trafficking. Even with those, they can barely make a dent in the victims," Baucus said.

The Council heard about an hour and a half worth of public comment in support and opposition the proposed ordinance. People in support praised the ordinance, anticipating it would help curb human trafficking in the city.

Many small massage business owners called into the virtual meeting to voice their opposition. Many against the ordinance said there was undue burden being placed on the massage business owner with the yearly fee. Others took issue with a requirement of the business owner to submit names, dates and places of birth, home addresses, phone numbers and employment dates of their employees to the city.

In moving the draft ordinance to the first reading, individual Council members wanted to keep widely open the possibility of changes before final adoption.

Mayor Bill Cole encouraged members of the public and massage business owners to further give the Council input.

"The same with any member of the public that might be watching, both proponents and opponents of this. This is your opportunity to have influence on the language of that proposed ordinance," Cole said.

Council members voting in favor of moving the ordinance to a first reading included: Mayor Bill Cole, Mike Boyett, Danny Choriki, Denise Joy, Roy Neese, Mike Yakawich, Penny Ronning, Shaun Brown and Kendra Shaw. Voting in opposition included Pam Purinton and Frank Ewalt.

RELATED: Ex-Billings massage parlor operator sentenced for sex trafficking