Occupational Licensing

Sex Trafficking in San Diego Massage Parlors Blamed on U.S. Military

But the real problem here isn't human-trafficking troops, it's regulators raising crime panic.


Underwood Archives/UIG

San Diego massage parlors have become hotspots of human trafficking thanks to the high concentration of U.S. military personnel in the area, claim local activists cited in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

"They say San Diego is particularly vulnerable to those problems because of the large presence of people in the military, many of whom have recently served in foreign countries where prostitution may be legal or isn't as frowned upon," writes David Garrick.

Yikes. If San Diego has a human trafficking problem because of U.S. troops, I'd say that's an issue for the U.S. military and federal law enforcement.

Instead, the San Diego City Council is considering a measure to require special police-issued permits for massage businesses, in addition to the general business permits owners must have and the state certification required of massage therapists. The new rule would apply to all massage businesses in San Diego, presenting new paperwork and fees for business owners regardless of their innocence.

These new licenses could be yanked if any illicit activity takes place at the business—which might not seem all that objectionable on its face. But a business fronting for illegal activity can already be shut down if law enforcement goes through the typical legal channels: bringing criminal charges, proving guilt, etc., etc. There's also a California law, the Red Light Abatement Act, that specifically allows cities to shut down places "used for the purpose of prostitution."

But those avenues require due process, which is costly and time-consuming for cops and prosecutors. The new measure would allow the city to yank a business' license if any of its individual employees were found guilty of any number of minor offenses, including violations of parts of the California Business Professions Code.

San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate, who introduced the measure, said his proposal would include a "robust list of grounds for permit suspension and revocation."

Yet excessive occupational and business licensing has come under intense fire from progressives, who rightly note that they raise barriers to employment. Using eminent domain to oust disfavored businesses from gentrifying neighborhoods is also passe. And assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't play well at all in California's liberal communties. So, what's a control-mad, money-grubbing bureaucrat to do? Pretend the regulations are about protecting people, rather than depriving them of their liberty and property.

"The goal of proposing changes," Cate said, is to give the city "the tools needed" to "combat human trafficking in massage establishments."

Of course, the bill would go far beyond ferreting out forced labor and prostitution. Even small infractions—like employing someone whose state massage licence is out of date—could cost a massage business its license. And once a business license has been revoked, no massage business can open in the same location for at least two years.

The measure would also bring a lot more police in contact with massage businesses, an industry heavily with a heavy immigrant concentration. While acting San Diego Police Lt. Dan Meyer said it would bring massage businesses in line with "other police regulated industries," it also increases the state's ability to punish owners for code violations, ferret out and punish undocumented immigrants, and drop the hammer on therapists practicing with expired licenses.

The real problem here isn't human-trafficking troops or soldiers led astray by the seductive guile of foreigners, it's regulators creating a crime panic and manipulating people's empathy for victims in order to serve their own run-of-the-mill bureaucratic ends.