Bee Investigator

Modesto massage parlor ordinance aims to combat illicit activity

Modesto’s updated massage business ordinance will go before the City Council next week.
Modesto’s updated massage business ordinance will go before the City Council next week.

Modesto’s updated massage business ordinance will go before the City Council next week, giving the city greater enforcement power to eradicate massage parlors that serve as fronts for prostitution.

There are about 20 of them in Modesto, according to officials.

But the Modesto Police Department and code enforcement teams charged with regulating the businesses won’t be getting any extra help to ensure compliance with the new laws.

Police Sgt. Tom Ciccarelli and one officer, who make up the Crime Reduction Team, work with code enforcement to inspect the businesses. But due to reductions in the Crime Reduction Team as a result of low staffing, Ciccarelli said, they only have the time and resources to do inspections on a complaint-driven basis.

He said it’s been well over a year since the team has performed a sting operation to make arrests for prostitution. Mostly they are citing for municipal code violations such as poor record keeping, inappropriate clothing such as lingerie worn by the masseuse, or locked doors. The Neighborhood Preservation Unit can also cite for building code violations, which are common in these places, often found in small suites tucked in the back of strip malls.

Cities and counties used to be responsible for the licensing of massage therapists, but Senate Bill 731, enacted in 2009, limited cities’ authority and prohibited them from requiring licenses from massage therapists who are certified by the California Massage Therapy Council.

The council, a nonprofit public benefit corporation, was established to create universal standards for massage therapists.

The bill expired Jan. 1, but a new bill, Assembly Bill 1147, renewed the council’s authority, while returning some to cities and counties.

The council sets the standards for the training of massage therapists, does background checks on applicants, and issues voluntary certificates to those who fulfill their requirements.

The council will continue to be the regulatory body over massage therapists, but under the draft ordinance, updated pursuant to AB 1147, the police chief will have the authority to issue permits to facility owners who are not certified by the council.

Chief Galen Carroll has the authority to run background checks on the owners and revoke a permit if the business is in violation of the municipal code.

An owner without a permit will not be issued a new business license when it is up for renewal, and if a business is operating without a license, the city can have it removed.

CAMTC also can help eliminate the criminal element in the industry by revoking certificates from therapists who engage in any type of sexual activity or violate the council’s bylaws.

“This is the hardest certificate to get and the easiest to lose,” said Rick McElroy, the council’s division director.

He said even if a prostitution case is lost in court or pleaded down to a lesser offense, a sworn statement by the arresting officer is all that is needed to revoke a certificate.

There are other additions to the draft ordinance, such as requiring massage therapists to wear their CAMTC identification cards and prohibiting anyone from living in a massage facility. Modesto chose not to impose zoning restrictions, which were permitted under AB 1147.

In May, the city implemented a temporary ban on opening new massage businesses or expanding and relocating old ones to craft the new ordinance.

Ciccarelli said most of the inspections lead to violations. Masseuses operating without a CAMTC certificate is a common one.

Carroll said he’d like to restore staff to the Crime Reduction Team to combat the problem but has no estimate on when that might be possible.

The team is responsible for not only vice crimes but other quality-of-life issues, such as underage drinking and problems with the homeless.

As part of the updated ordinance, city officials also wanted to establish a hotline for complaints and to have monthly inspections. But for now, they will continue to be done as complaints come in and as time permits, so every few months.

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