On January 23, 2019, Pennsylvania State Police executed a search warrant at Skippack Acupressure, a massage parlor in Montgomery County that is now facing allegations of prostitution-related activity. A complaint from a “concerned citizen” prompted the inquiry by state authorities. During the investigation, undercover troopers went to the business on various datesposing as customers and solicited sexual acts from staff. Shortly after, police conducted a search of the parlor and found “about $4,000 and evidence consistent with a prostitution operation.”
The investigation resulted in the arrest of three Skippack Acupressure employees. One woman was arrested and charged with two promoting prostitution offenses, managing a house of prostitution (a third-degree felony) and procuring a prostitute for a patron (a second-degree misdemeanor), as well as criminal conspiracy (a third-degree misdemeanor), and possessing an instrument of crime (a first-degree misdemeanor). Two other female employees were charged with prostitution (a third-degree misdemeanor).
The CSE Institute applauds the Pennsylvania State Police’s efforts to target entities that profit from commercial sexual exploitation. We know that prostitution and sex trafficking go hand in hand. Yet, we would encourage law enforcement to prioritize an anti-demand approach that would generate lasting results in the fight to eliminate commercial sexual exploitation in Skippack and other jurisdictions.
For instance, one can logically infer that a “concerned citizen” likely developed his or her concerns about the local business after he or she observed suspicious behavior outside of -or within- the business. Indeed, we have previously reported on other prostitution stings involving illicit massage parlors initiated by anonymous tipsters who observed men entering and exiting the establishments in droves – oftentimes at odd hours of day and night.
In Pennsylvania, the crime of “Prostitution and related offenses” constitutes five separate offenses including: selling sex and buying sex. If an establishment is in fact an illicit massage parlor, it is logical to assume a majority of those patrons are entering the establishment with an intent to engage in criminal activity.
However, peculiarly, as a result of this particular investigation, the only people who were arrested and charged with a crime were the three employees confined to the establishment. None of the patrons presumably observed by concerned onlookers were subjected to arrest. Had the Pennsylvania State Police chosen to target the demand who kept the alleged illicit massage parlor in business, their efforts would have potentially yielded more arrests and would undoubtedly act as a deterrent for sex buyers throughout the community.
Moreover, we are troubled by the language law enforcement has used to describe these undercover operations. The claim that the on-duty officers “solicited sexual acts from staff” in the course of their investigation prior to executing their search warrant suggests that they may have sexually exploited the employees and/or engaged in criminal activity themselves. Either way, that would amount to outrageous governmental conduct. The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Chon that sending in confidential informants to engage in commercial sex with prostituted persons in the course of a law enforcement investigation may amount to outrageous government conduct, which is grounds for a case’s dismissal.
If the three women in this case were sexually exploited by law enforcement, they are victims of assault– not criminals. The practice of undercover prostitution stings, which are inefficient at best and harmful at worst, could be eliminated with the implementation of a police policies in line with the Nordic Model. The Nordic Model, or Equality Model, criminalizes sex buyers, traffickers, and others who profit off of the sexual exploitation of another while providing immunity and social services to prostituted people.
As the front line in spotting and stopping sex trafficking, law enforcement officers have a legal duty to attempt to identify potential victims of trafficking, and also have the discretion not to arrest them. Shifting law enforcement’s perspective on handling these types of cases is more pertinent than ever, especially in light of Polaris recent report, which found that 9,000 illicit massage parlors are currently operating in the United States.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.