The 14-member Florida House Criminal Justice Subcommittee approved, by a unanimous vote Wednesday morning, a bill that revises the 2011 "Massage Practice Act," in an effort to combat human trafficking. Its sponsors are optimistic it will pick up similar traction in the Senate.
Intended to curtail the operation of brothels which disguise themselves as "massage establishments," the bill -- which was sponsored by the subcommittee and pushed forward by freshman Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth -- prohibits these establishments (with some exceptions) from operating between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and prohibits them from being used as a person's "principal domicile."
"It's great news that Florida is continuing to take steps to curb human trafficking," subcommittee chairman Rep. Matt Gaetz, R- Fort Walton Beach, told Sunshine State News. "Too often, the legitimate practice of massage therapy has been used as a front for illicit and illegal brothels that have become hotbeds for trafficking, so now we're taking steps to starve those brothels of cash."
"The type of criminals that we're combating here are not always evident to society; you really have to scratch the surface of our communities to see what's going on" Kerner told the News. "It's an honor for me to have been the lead member on this."
The bill, tentatively titled CRJS 13-01, is the first piece of legislation to be voted on by a House committee for the 2013 session. It has received the qualified support of the Florida State Massage Therapy Association, whose legislative chair, Alex Spassoff, tells Sunshine State News the association will be proposing its own amendments to the legislation.
House committees and their subcommittees cannot sponsor bills without the express blessing of the House speaker and the committee chairman, and Kerner and Gaetz tell the News the passage of CRJS 13-01 is a strong indicator that the legislation should receive enough support to make it to the House and pass with a strong bipartisan majority.
"I am very optimistic of the bill's prospects in the House," Kerner told the News. "I think if you look at the fact that Chairman Gaetz picked a Democrat to move this bill forward, which already has approval from the speaker [Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel] and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee [Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala], I can't see this being a partisan issue."
Kerner, an attorney and former police officer, says Gaetz appointed him to champion the bill on the subcommittee's behalf for his career experience and also a sign of the "air of bipartisanship by [House] leadership."
A companion bill has yet to be filed in the Senate, but Sunshine State News received confirmation from his staff that Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would be submitting a version in that chamber in the near future.
The office of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Destin, who is Rep. Gaetz's father, told the News that the senior Gaetz will follow Senate custom and not comment on Clemens' proposal until it has been filed and gone through the full committee process.
Rep. Gaetz says he hasn't spoken with his father about the issue, but that he had spoken with at least a half-dozen prominent senators, each of whom has expressed support for the measure. One of those is Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.
Sobel chairs the Committee on Children, Families, and Elder Affairs, which is meeting Jan. 23 to discuss efforts to combat sex trafficking.
"We've sent the language [of the House legislation] to Senator Sobel, and she did indicate that she supports the concepts in the bill," Rep. Gaetz told the News.
Sobel's office did not return the News' request for comment before this story went to press.
The bill will have to be approved by the Judiciary Committee, probably by the Health and Human Services Committee, and possibly by others before it reaches the full House for a vote.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has made combating human trafficking a priority of her administration. The subcommittee panelists were shown an emotionally heart-wrenching short video that highlighted the plight of foreign workers especially young women who are lured to the United States with the promise of respectable employment, only to find themselves sold for sexual favors.
Bondi was represented at the meeting by assistant statewide prosecutor Sasha Lohn-McDermott.
Asked whether it has been her experience that massage parlors that were open 24-hours, or which had served as some people's principal domicile, tended to be those most likely to be closet brothels peddling in both consensual prostitution and human trafficking, Lohn-McDermott declined to answer directly, but signified Bondi's support for CRJS 13-01.
"The way that I can answer that, while maintaining the confidentiality of our ongoing investigations, is to say that we are seeing a pattern of crime that would indicate that this bill is a significant move in the right direction," she told Gaetz.
The bill's provisions relating to operating hours do not apply to massage establishments located in health care facilities, hotels, motels, or bed-and-breakfast inns. In addition, the provisions do not apply to massages received under the direction of a physician.
What of law-abiding citizens who wish to receive a recreational massage in the wee hours of the night?
"Depending on how'recreational' it is, that's what we're trying to avoid," Rep. Gatez told the News.
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (954) 235-9116.