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Billings law to regulate massage businesses, fight human trafficking passes first reading

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BILLINGS — An ordinance to regulate massage businesses in Billings with the goal to cut down on human trafficking passed in a 8-3 vote at a City Council meeting Monday night.

Council discussion and public comment lasted hours at the hybrid meeting in the Billings Public Library and over video call. The ordinance still needs a second reading at a future Council meeting before it becomes law.

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 fingerprints 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 compliance.

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.

Before the vote, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John spoke in support of the ordinance. He said he’s for anything that will help victims and dismantle criminal enterprises.

“That takes a complex, lengthy and expensive criminal investigation. I’m in support of any tool that helps us achieve those objectives, even if it comes in the form of a business license,” St. John said.

Also in support of the ordinance, was Detective Joseph Scaramucci, from Waco, Texas, who spoke via video call to share his experience working with state and federal human trafficking investigations. He has been a detective in Waco focusing on human trafficking since 2008.

Scaramucci said the ordinance prohibits practices taken up by illicit massage parlors, like 24-hour operation, darkened front windows and locked doors. He said the legitimate massage businesses don’t do those things.

“There is not a single law in any state that has negative impacts on those who don’t violate it. I do think that passage of this law will lead to the closure of (illicit massage businesses) and would likely provide safer work environments for massage businesses, because men who buy sex won’t have the option of engaging in any of that,” Scaramucci said.

Local massage business owners spoke both in opposition and in favor of the ordinance.

Supporters said they didn’t believe the regulations were too much to ask of the massage business owner.

Some opponents said they were offended that the massage business was being associated in a conversation about human trafficking. Others said the ordinance would place burden on their business that isn’t seen on others.

“Target them, put a task force together. We have tried to work with you. We have tried to give you examples of things, but you just keep shutting us down. I am appalled that you don’t take us as credible like we don’t know what we’re doing,” said Theresa Thormahlan, a Billings massage business owner, during public comment.

Before the vote Billings Mayor Bill Cole said compromises have been made during while drafting the ordinance, based on feedback from legitimate massage business owners. Cole noted the addition of a variance owners can apply for to keep front doors locked for security

“That there are no criminal penalties anymore unless you are running truly a sex business is another major step forward to make that less intrusive for legitimate licensed massage therapists while still giving the opportunity for code enforcement to shut down the (illicit massage businesses) and to prevent (illicit massage businesses) from even applying for one of these licenses,” Cole said.

Council members Mike Yakawich, Kendra Shaw, Roy Neese, Denise Joy, Penny Ronning, Mike Boyett, Shaun Brown and Mayor Bill Cole voted in favor, Council members Frank Ewalt, Danny Choriki and Pam Purinton voted in opposition.

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