Short Bill Would Require Licensure for Massage Establishments

DOVER – Illicit massage establishments that have become hotbeds of illegal activity would be regulated and subject to licensing and inspection under legislation Rep. Bryon Short filed Thursday.

Rep. Short was approached by a constituent raising the issue of massage parlors open late at night on Philadelphia Pike, a concern echoed by civic associations in the area. Illegal activity such as prostitution and human trafficking has been reportedly taking place at some of these establishments.

After conversations with Delaware State Police Troop 1, Rep. Short worked with Attorney General Matt Denn’s office, the Division of Public Health and the Division of Professional Regulation to craft legislation addressing the topic.

Currently all massage parlors – legitimate and illicit – are unlicensed. House Bill 35 would define a “massage establishment” and allow the Board of Massage and Bodywork to license massage establishments, adopt rules and regulations for maintenance and standards of massage establishments, inspect massage establishments, and engage in disciplinary sanctions. Currently, only the individuals working at the establishments are licensed and regulated by the board. The owners of the parlors are not typically subject to any penalties, and continue to operate after an arrest is made, but that would change under the new licensing requirement.

“In our conversations with residents and law enforcement, we learned that there are some massage parlors open late at night, and oftentimes prostitution and other illegal activity are happening. What we found even more disturbing is that we have human trafficking taking place, with women being held against their free will and housed at the parlors,” said Rep. Short, D-Brandywine Hundred. “These illicit parlors are often located in nondescript suburban settings, nestled right in our communities. Under our current code, it’s very difficult for law enforcement to go after these establishments directly.

“By requiring massage establishments to be licensed, we will enable officials to inspect these facilities for safety and sanitation, respond to complaints and close down these parlors. Our goal is to make it impossible for these kinds of illicit businesses to operate in Delaware and to protect the real, professional massage establishments in our state who have a role in keeping people healthy.”

Co-prime sponsors on the bill include Rep. Steve Smyk, who is familiar with human trafficking from his 24-year career with the Delaware State Police. Rep. Smyk said this bill is needed because massage parlors all over the state are being used as fronts for prostitution, including some in his Sussex County district. It is the nature of these businesses to cycle out their personnel quickly, so arresting the perpetrators does not stop the unlawful activity. Targeting the venue is the only effective way to battle this type of operation, Rep. Smyk said.

Rep. Debra Heffernan and Sens. Harris B. McDowell III and Gregory F. Lavelle, who all represent districts including or adjoining Brandywine Hundred, also are co-prime sponsors of the bill.

Rep. Short praised the Department of Justice for its work in crafting the legislation.

“Unfortunately, some massage establishments are the location of criminal activity, including human trafficking. It is not a victimless crime when people are forced into prostitution,” said Attorney General Denn. “Legislators have brought suspected illicit practices to the attention of DOJ in recent years and we have taken action against some individual sites. And we have also worked with legislators to propose this licensing and inspection program that will have the goal of identifying and reducing the criminal activities that we have reason to believe are occurring here.”

HB 35 provides authority for the Division of Professional Regulation to inspect such establishments without any advance notice or concurrent criminal investigation. It also imposes criminal and civil penalties, including injunctive relief, fines, and imprisonment, for the unlicensed practice of massage and bodywork and the operation of an unlicensed massage establishment. The measure would become effective six months after passage to allow time for legitimate massage establishments to comply with the regulations.

HB 35 has been assigned to the House Policy Analysis & Government Accountability Committee.