Officials are making use of rules allowing them to sue, shutter illicit spas
When officers burst into A Spa in southeast Houston, they found cash stashed in hidden books and messy bedrooms that seemed to indicate women were living at the unlicensed massage parlor's Gulf Freeway strip mall location.
In the middle of it all sat a coffee pot full of condoms.
When officers raided JC Spa on Hillcroft Avenue, they found a similar series of bedrooms, a container full of condoms and neatly displayed lingerie.
Those busts and a slew of prostitution arrests led to a July nuisance abatement lawsuit against the spas and related companies - part of a growing number of suits aimed at shutting down Houston massage parlors and spas that officials say are operating outside the law.
It's the latest effort by local law enforcement to crack down on Houston's long-standing prostitution problem in local spas and massage parlors, some of which have been linked to human trafficking.
In the past year, at least 13 massage parlors and spas in Houston have been shuttered for a variety of violations, more than double the number of closures in the two previous years combined. Next year, officials expect to see even more closures, thanks in part to an updated city ordinance approved in 2015 that gives law enforcement broader authority to walk through the doors.
The suits filed by the city and county attorney offices are aimed at knocking out the high-level operators instead of ground-level sex workers typically scooped up by vice officers.
"They're getting the actors committing the day-to-day acts, but we're getting the people who are profiting - and shutting them down," said Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson. "You have to go after the money."
Critics, however, say the nuisance suits go too far by cracking down on property owners who may have nothing to do with the businesses. Through the nuisance lawsuits, the property owners also are being held accountable for what goes on inside.
"I think it's an overly broad-written law and has some potential constitutional issues," said Dean Blumrosen, an attorney who represented a landlord in a recent case. "To be able to hold someone responsible for someone else's actions kind of goes against due process."
'We're coming in'
Given its high immigration rate, easy access to highways and port location, Houston has long been plagued by massage parlors and spas with ties to human trafficking.
Although no numbers are available, Houston is considered a hub for sex trafficking, often operating through commercial-front brothels posing as massage parlors.
That's why last year City Council strengthened an existing ordinance to help the Houston Police Department gain more access to the illicit establishments.
"It was becoming very difficult for HPD to access some of these locations, and other cities had ordinances with more teeth," said Ed Gonzalez, the incoming Harris County sheriff who helped reshape the ordinance as a councilman last year.
The council changed its definition of massage parlors to include any facility that advertises massage services, whether or not they have state licenses to operate.
"The way the ordinance was written before, it only authorized law enforcement to conduct inspections of the places with state licenses," said Minal Patel Davis, a special adviser to the mayor on human trafficking.
Now, authorities can conduct inspections for virtually any operating massage parlor or spa.
"If you advertise in any form, we're coming in," Patel Davis said.
The change took effect last December, as soon as the council voted on it. Almost a year later, those inspections are just now starting to get underway.
"There's this flash-to-bang delay," said Capt. Dan Harris, head of the HPD vice division. "The ordinance changed, but before you hear the thunder - the results - there's this delay."
From February to April, 172 officers assigned to HPD's specialized Differential Response Team completed training to do the inspections and recognize human trafficking victims.
Then, HPD's vice unit developed a list of locations to inspect. Finally, in September, police kicked off the inspections.
By Nov. 8, officers had visited 111 sites - 40 of which failed inspection - and issued 147 citations, according to DRT coordinator Lt. Susan Wheeler.
The citations can help bolster a nuisance abatement case, but with the DRT inspection process still in its infancy, vice raids and undercover arrests are still the main tools police use to shut down illicit spas.
Going after the money
The nuisance lawsuits take anti-prostitution efforts to the next level.
Habitual evidence of a wide range of illicit activities - including everything from prostitution to gambling or murder - can be grounds for a so-called "Chapter 125 suit," a reference to the section of civil law used to shut down nuisance businesses.
After the city, county or state files suit, defendants can be hit with a temporary injunction forcing certain clean-up stipulations as the case winds its way through the court. In the meantime, the business can still operate if the defendant ponies up bond money and follows the court's orders.
If the suit is successful, the business - and property - can face a so-called permanent injunction shutting down the property for a year.
"If the place closes for a year the hope is that it won't reopen," Vinson said.
But that's not always how things work out. Sometimes the businesses move elsewhere, switch the sign out front or blatantly ignore the suit altogether.
In one case, a mother and daughter were arrested for prostitution at the spa they allegedly ran together - in a location that previously housed a different massage parlor. That suit resulted in an agreement to shut down the business, but two months later there were still signs out front advertising $45 massages.
Blumrosen, the attorney who represented the landlord of a site that once housed a business called Spa Haven, said Chapter 125 is too inclusive.
"It's a pretty broad law they work under," he said. "Whatever the tenant is doing, you really don't have a knowledge of that."
Attorney George Dana, who represented the landlord in another spa suit, said the city was "overreaching" in suing the property owner.
"My client did not know of any illegal activity occurring on his property and he certainly would not have permitted it to continue had it been brought to his attention," he said.
But some feel the law isn't strong enough.
"In a perfect world, we'd love for Chapter 125 to be a little bit more stringent," Vinson said.
A new bill filed this week by state Rep. Ana Hernandez of Houston could make that a reality.
Currently, the law requires that any illicit activity - including failure to obtain proper massage licensing - must be habitual in order to spark a nuisance suit.
Under the proposed measure, HB 240, simply operating a massage parlor without proper state licensing would be sufficient to meet the test for habitual violation of Chapter 125.
Vinson said a stronger state law could add even more teeth to local efforts to shut down illicit businesses.
"That's really where the power comes in," Vinson said. "Suing the landowner."