Harris County Joins City In Regulating Sexually Oriented Businesses

Harris County Commissioners have approved changes to regulations for sexually oriented businesses that operate in unincorporated areas of the county. It's an attempt to add more teeth to laws that are often easy to get around.

Harris County has been working to contain the spread of prostitution at places that operate as massage parlors, modeling studios and spas. Some of the businesses have recently run afoul of the law, primarily in the county's north-side along the 1960 corridor.

A task force, made up of state and county officials, has worked to give law enforcement and the courts better tools through stricter regulations. Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle is a member of the task force. He recently hosted a series of public meetings which helped him craft changes for sexually oriented businesses, or SOBs.

"A lot of our problems are ones that deal with human trafficking, illegal activity, and these regulations allow our sheriffs and allow our constables to be able to engage into that process, to make sure that those that are breaking and circumventing the rules would be held accountable."

The Harris County Attorney's office has targeted many of these businesses, suing some of them under a public nuisance law. Assistant County Attorney Terry O'Roark says the new regulations will make enforcement easier.

"We find that one of the ways is you've got to control where crimes occurs, not just 'arrest the girls or the operators,' and this provides a tool because violation of the Harris County Sexually Oriented Business regulation, is an element of a common nuisance."

Many residents have complained that SOBs have been skirting around the regulations, but Commissioner Cagle says the changes help stop that revolving door.

"These ordinances, companion, and in a county it's a regulation, will allow, once the sheriff goes through the onerous duty or a constable goes through that onerous process, of making a bust, of shutting down a business engaged in illegal activity in our neighborhoods, that they can't just turn around down and open up again a couple weeks later under a new name."

Changes include requiring the SOBs obtain a permit to operate a sexually oriented business and having all employees wear name tags and submit to criminal background checks. This is Harris County Judge Ed Emmett:

"This was driven entirely by Commissioner Cagle and the County Attorney's Office, and every time the City of Houston tightens their ordinance, the massage parlors, the tea rooms, whatever they are, move to the unincorporated area and set up shop there. So that's what he was talking about, making sure that unincorporated parts of the county have restrictions in place that match those that are in the incorporated parts."

For almost 30 years, the City of Houston has led the change locally in the fight against sexually oriented businesses. Judge Emmett says it was time for the county to join in that fight.

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Pat Hernandez

Reporter

Pat Hernandez is a general assignments reporter who joined the KUHF news staff in February of 2008...