Local delegation supports proposed state law on massage businesses

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Local state lawmakers told the Vancouver City Council on Monday they support a proposed new state law that would punish owners of illicit massage businesses.

The illicit businesses crop up in different locations, changing names and advertising online. The women who work there are frequently rotated among different businesses, said Councilor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who as a neighborhood leader advocated for cracking down on the businesses before joining the council this year. As she and other neighborhood leaders have observed, the businesses would accept cash only, stay open late at night and clients, predominantly men, would park several blocks away.

“The pimps have come out of the dark alleys. … It is human sex trafficking,” McEnerny-Ogle said on Monday.

In a written description of the problem, Mark Brown, the city’s lobbyist in Olympia, said police officers have seen “an increasing number of prostitution and human trafficking rings masquerading as so-called “massage” and “reflexology” businesses. These businesses are “separate and distinct” from the legitimate practice of massage therapy and reflexology, he said.

But cracking down on them has been difficult, because “it is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a worker in such an establishment has engaged in sexual activity with a customer as both parties are unwilling to implicate themselves in criminal activity,” Brown wrote.

The most common type of charge filed, practicing massage without a license, hurts the victim, McEnerny-Ogle said.

The proposed legislation would target the pimp, she said.

The new law would make it a crime for business owners to permit the unlicensed practice of massage therapy or reflexology. A single violation would be a gross misdemeanor, while a subsequent violation would be a class C felony.

The 49th District delegation — state Sen. Annette Cleveland and Reps. Jim Moeller and Sharon Wylie, all Vancouver Democrats — agreed the proposed law was needed to help fight sex trafficking.