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New ordinance calls for anti-human trafficking signage

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Businesses that offer bodywork or massage services and are not affiliated with healthcare facilities must display anti-human trafficking signage under a new ordinance approved by the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) last month. The ordinance also allows County law and code enforcement agencies to enforce Florida law requiring that operators of specific businesses prominently display such signage inside their establishments.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), human trafficking is defined as the unlawful act of transporting or coercing people in order to benefit from their work or service, typically in the form of forced labor or sexual exploitation. Both federal and Florida laws prohibit it, and those who engage in human trafficking could be charged with felonies.

Commissioner Jerry Campbell said that a County ordinance addressing the issue is appropriate. “The common verbiage that we use is human trafficking, and I can appreciate that, but let’s call it what it is – the majority of the time, it’s sex slavery, that’s what this is, and it’s appalling, it’s repulsive, and anything we can do to prevent that and in Hernando County we need to do that,” Campbell said.

Specifically, the new ordinance requires non-healthcare-affiliated bodywork or massage businesses to display signage bearing the message that “If you or someone you know is being forced to engage in an activity and cannot leave- whether it is prostitution, housework, farm work, factory work, retail work, or any other activity call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or text INFO or HELP to 233-733 to access help and services.”

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Also, under the ordinance, the signs must be prominently posted where the business’s patrons and employees may see them.
Hernando County Attorney Jon Jouben called the ordinance a tool that helps law and code enforcement personnel enforce State law that is already on the books. “What we are finding is that it has become very challenging to enforce (State law), and so this statute would (allow) our Sheriff’s Department and also code enforcement to go in and inspect for signage, which not only increases the likelihood of someone getting the information they need if they are being trafficked, but it also tends to (make) a shadier sector of society find another place to go,” he said.

BOCC Chairman John Allocco said that in Hernando County, the ordinance pertains specifically to operators of certain massage facilities. “We don’t have strip clubs (here), but we do have the non-medical (businesses) that offer massage or bodywork services for compensation that (are) not owned by a health care (professional),” he said.

In response, Jouben told the panel that the measure does not apply to already regulated facilities. “For the record, anything that is regulated as a health profession or as actual medicine is excluded from the scope of the ordinances,” he said.

Ahead of the final vote to accept the measure, Commissioner Steve Champion made a motion to approve it. “Anything that can help fight this, I’m all for it,” he said.

Ultimately, the members of the BOCC approved the ordinance by a vote of 5-0. Allocco thanked the panel for its unanimous support and encouraged them to lobby local legislators to support stiffer penalties for those who purchase human trafficking services. “A big part of the problem when it comes to sex trafficking is that the law punishes the ‘pimps’ and unfortunately, the woman and sometimes the men who are being trafficked and the buyer of the services do not get felonies they get misdemeanors,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to speak to any of our legislators going into the next (legislative) session, we have to keep pushing and pushing for that to change because until there’s a penalty for those who are buying the services, there is always going to be a person (human traffickers) can provide to perform the service.

Statues like the one just passed in Hernando County are already in place elsewhere, including Volusia, Pinellas, and Lee counties.

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