Forsyth County Commissioners and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office will work together to strengthen the existing massage and spa ordinance to further tackle crimes like prostitution and human trafficking.
At a meeting on Tuesday, commissioners heard from Sheriff Ron Freeman and other members of the FCSO before voting to have them work with County Attorney Ken Jarrard to make needed changes to the ordinance and come back to a future work session.
Freeman said changes are needed to help with the enforcement of the ordinance, which aimed at stopping illicit activity, including prostitution, at massage businesses.
“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is some of these businesses are, in fact, face value only,” Freeman said. “In fact, they are engaged in the sexual trade business. They are engaged in the illicit sex business and the criminal sex business.
“And we have brought before you before several cases where we made criminal charges for things like prostitution, masturbation-for-hire, public nudity, other things like that where we have seen again and again the sex trade.”
Freeman said his office knew “anecdotally” some of the violating businesses were tied to a larger criminal organization and could be involved in sex trafficking, of which he said the sheriff’s office and a joint task force had rescued some victims, who were not typically charged.
He said those running illicit businesses have learned to avoid violating the local ordinance.
“They are very good at what they do,” Freeman said. “They have been, again and again, trained and taught and learned from experience how to avoid law enforcement detection. They are really good at separating an individual from their clothing and any electronic devices. Why do they do that? Because they know sometimes law enforcement may be recording them.”
No recording means less evidence law enforcement can use during trials. Similarly, Freeman said most solicitations for illicit activities are negotiated through hand and facial gestures.
Forsyth County first approved new rules for massage businesses in 2015 and has updated the rules since, including a change in 2018 that set up protections to stop those who had violations in other areas from getting permits in Forsyth County.
“We were able to screen out several individuals who had lengthy criminal records from wanting to work in some of these establishments,” said Freeman. “So, some of the things we are doing are working. You have suspended or revoked the license of several of these.”
Under the ordinance, massages and spas are required to have a license from the county and pay an annual regulatory fee, and employees are required to have a work permit unless they the hold the massage license.
Licenses are not required for physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists or any similar position that is overseen by a state license.
Other requirements include keeping a list of information on those who perform massage services; businesses must keep records of services provided for a minimum of two years; a licensed therapist must be on-site while customers are present; employees must be “completely clothed;” no “ordinary beds or mattresses” can be used for massages by the business; front windows cannot be darkly tinted or covered; and all customers must enter and exit through the front door.
“We’re not nickel-and-diming these people, just like we don’t do with traffic tickets,” Freeman said. “We’re not writing an ordinance violation because you have tinted windows and we want to be jerks. We’re doing this as part of an organized investigation.”
Once the sheriff’s office has given citations, license holders must come before commissioners for a hearing, which has resulted in suspensions and revocations of licenses.
Freeman said due to the lengthy legal process for serious charges related to prostitution or other activities, commissioners may not have all the information when making decisions.
“There may be some more criminal, like prostitution, charges still pending in our state court system,” Freeman said. “It’s not real hard to ask for extensions that go a year out.”
Freeman said another issue with the time frame is that by the time they are found guilty, licensees may try to downplay the matter since it was so long ago “because they have craftily extended that criminal justice court case by a year or more.”
During the county hearings, deputies involved are typically asked questions about the incident by commissioners.
Both Freeman and Jarrard said the set-up of the hearing can allow attorneys of the businesses to question officers, who are not represented, even if the violations have been ruled on by the court.
Jarrard asked commissioners to consider whether or not officers’ comments were needed for the violation since “by the time they get here, there has already been an adjudication of it, either it’s been by the way of fine or it’s been by trial at the magistrate court” and the attorney for the business had likely made the same case to a judge beforehand.
Freeman said he would be open to using the sheriff’s office attorney for those hearings.
Jarrard said the ordinance was a “work in progress” and he and his staff would work with the sheriff’s office to address any issues.
“My office, I would like to get with those folks, go over every area that they think might need to be [changed] … and bring back to you, by way of a public hearing, some changes to that code that we think will make it better for everybody, including the law enforcement aspect,” Jarrard said.