Months after New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution at a Jupiter day spa, legislators take action.
Months after a high-profile prostitution bust netted New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft on charges of soliciting sex at a Jupiter spa, a new state law aims to drive down demand in the sex trade industry and curb human trafficking.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 27 signed into law a requirement that spas and hotels teach staff to spot signs of sex trafficking and all law enforcement officers complete four-hour training on how to investigate the crime.
State officials also will put up $250,000 to establish a nonprofit to help agencies track traffickers and care for victims.
To deter the demand for prostitution, the state will build a public registry of “johns” convicted of soliciting a prostitute, similar to the list that tracks sex offenders or the database of state prisoners.
Though the February raids of several spas in four Florida counties didn’t yield any human trafficking charges, investigators said they suspected the businesses forced Asian women into illicit sex trade, but the crime is a difficult one to prove.
Kraft, a Donald Trump confidante and part-time Jupiter resident, denies allegations he sought sex at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter. His arrest nonetheless shined a national spotlight on an industry experts say has operated in the shadows for decades.
The new law takes direct aim at brothels operating out of spas: Owners now must report the names of spa managers to the state, making it more difficult to reopen a massage business under a new name and license after a prostitution raid.
That’s common practice among illicit massage businesses, said Terry Coonan, who heads Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights and studies sex trafficking at massage parlors.
“This law finally gets at how slippery some of the massage establishments have been,” Coonan said.
In March, The Palm Beach Post used signs spelled out by police — offers of sex acts online, health inspections and complaints from neighbors — to identify 95 massage parlors in the county that matched the pattern of those busted in Jupiter and Martin County, which investigators once suspected were part of elaborate sex trafficking networks.
Police in February said some women lived in the spas while operators often shuffled them across county lines to work at other locations.
Prosecutors in Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River and Orange counties charged Kraft and dozens of other men with soliciting prostitution, a second-degree misdemeanor.
But video shot inside massage parlors to build their cases have been tossed out in Palm Beach and other counties.
By January 2021, when the law takes effect, the state will have set up the public registry of men and women convicted of soliciting a prostitute. The names and pictures of those convicted will remain on the list for five years.
Public shaming, trafficking researchers say, is necessary to deter demand in the lucrative sex trade industry.
"This law sends a powerful message to traffickers and pimps: the state of Florida is CLOSED for business," Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Plantation who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement. “When we curb the demand for the illegal sale and purchase of sex, we also curb the profitability of human trafficking — and take a stand against the enslavement of men, women and children in communities across our state.”
The new nonprofit — with board members appointed by the governor, attorney general, Senate president and House speaker — will coordinate with the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, a 15-member panel tasked with developing programs to help trafficking victims and make recommendations on how best to prosecute trafficking cases.
The nonprofit is expected to get $250,000 in its first year, 2021.
The nonprofit will play a role in crafting the training for hotel operators, spa owners and law enforcement, said Coonan, who serves on the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking.
Lynne Barletta, founder of nonprofit Catch The Wave of Hope in Martin County who lobbied in Tallahassee for the legislation, said the new law tackles trafficking at all levels: curbing demand, encouraging reporting and empowering law enforcement to go after traffickers.
Training hotel and spa employees to identify and report trafficking could yield tips for law enforcement.
But more importantly, Barletta said, training police to effectively handle these sensitive cases is key.
Catch The Wave of Hope offers services to trafficking victims in the Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County and often encounters officers ill-equipped to investigate trafficking.
“We’ve helped victims, sent them to their local sheriff, and found that law enforcement had no idea how to question, how to approach, and how to get victims to identify,” she said. “Training law enforcement at the grassroots level is the most effective way to stop human trafficking.”
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.