A hand-up on massage investigators Legal process may expose police more than massage parlors.

January 15, 1996

THE FIRST LEGAL consequences of Howard County's seven-month-long crackdown on sex-act massage parlors should be no cause for pride in county law enforcement: an unlicensed masseuse (who got a county license only after starting work) agreed to forfeit that license for a year.

Twelve other women charged with violations of the year-old county law saw their scheduled cases in District Court postponed or shifted (at their request) to jury trials in Circuit Court. This despite the county prosecutor's offer to make similar deals on the alleged license-requirement offenses.

The defense strategy for the women charged with performing illegal sex acts is clear: make the undercover police officers publicly detail their repeat visits to these parlors to engage in paid sex with the defendants.

The prolonged investigation has stirred protests from civil liberties groups and from other citizens outraged at the repeated policeman participation in this form of prostitution.

Making arrests for soliciting illegal acts would have been as effective, and less costly to the county and the police agency's reputation, critics claim. We agree, despite the apparent concurrence of county officials and the Howard state's attorney in the police conduct. Thoughtful officials would have foreseen this courtroom result, which can only damage the county's image while dispensing meaningless penalties to the alleged offenders.

Law enforcement representatives argue that they have built a stronger case by this intensive investigation, that they are better prepared to legally close these alleged dens of sin rather than simply fining individuals. To this point, that does not appear to be the case, notwithstanding the police department's pledge to openly testify to these intimate encounters.

The Howard massage parlor law is new, and different in detail from established prostitution laws, prosecutors explain. That seems, however, to argue for revising the county statute rather than for building a mountain of evidence that will tarnish the police department more than the charged masseuses.

While complaints about the illegal conduct of some massage salons need to be addressed by Howard authorities, the initial results of this undercover foray are hardly encouraging.

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