Montgomery County would become the latest jurisdiction in the D.C. region to step up efforts to combat human trafficking, under two bills introduced Thursday by County Executive Isiah Leggett.
State and federal laws bar human trafficking, which is generally defined as coercing or deceiving a person into work against his or her will, frequently in private homes, restaurants, hotels or commercial sex businesses such as massage parlors. While the county licenses and regulates massage parlors, officials say a category of “body works” establishments falls outside regulatory scrutiny. They offer services such as reflexology and accupressure, which involve applying pressure to the hands and feet to relieve ailments.
One of Leggett’s measures requires body works operators to apply for licenses and undergo criminal background checks. Licensing would also allow unannounced visits by county inspectors, who could alert police to possible criminal activity.
The other bill would empower the county to revoke use and occupancy permits — required for all Montgomery businesses in using commercial space — of unlicensed body works establishments.
“The nature of human trafficking keeps changing,” Leggett (D) said in a statement. “We must adapt our laws to keep up and to give our law enforcement agencies the tools they need to protect the innocent lives of those forced into prostitution and to punish those who would destroy the lives of these victims.”
Leggett formed a task force last year, at the urging of the Montgomery County Commission for Women and police, to study the issue. Its recommendations form the basis for Leggett’s bills. Maryland officials convened a similar group in 2007, but local advocates said the nature of the problem can differ from one locality to another.
Montgomery police have made numerous arrests at body works businesses in recent years, some the result of sting operations. Maps show about two dozen accupressure or reflexology spots in the county. While officials emphasize that the proposed legislation wouldn’t eliminate sex trafficking, it would provide a new tool to help police push back against a growing source of the problem.
“In seven years, I’ve never seen a legal body works establishment,” said Sgt. Ken Penrod, supervisor of the Montgomery police vice and intelligence unit. Without background checks and licensing, businesses that run afoul of the law can easily move and set up in another location under a new name.
Penrod said police expect the application and licensing requirements “will eliminate many of those establishments because they don’t want to go through the process.”
Law enforcement officials say the combination of Interstate 95 and Dulles, BWI and Reagan National airports makes the Washington region a heavily traveled corridor for East Coast traffickers.
Leggett is expected to formally send the bills to the County Council in the next week or so. If they pass, Montgomery would join Prince George’s County and the District in recent efforts to fight human trafficking and prostitution. Late last year, the Prince George’s County Council approved companion bills: one barring hotels from renting rooms by the hour and another requiring lodging establishments to train employees on how to identify signs of human trafficking. The Baltimore City Council is considering a similar bill.
In 2010, the D.C. Council passed a bill that allows police to seize assets of traffickers and provides more support for victims.
In Virginia, state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) has introduced legislation that would broaden the power of police and prosecutors to pursue sex-trafficking cases.