Will laws change after Horry County SC massage parlor probe?

 Will laws change after Horry County SC massage parlor probe?

Human trafficking is happening South Carolina, and we’re going to talk about it. Join our live discussion on Wednesday, April 7 at noon, with panelists Jane Anderson of AEquitas and South Carolina State Senator Stephen Goldfinch. RSVP and submit your questions here.

Numerous South Carolina lawmakers are now favoring new laws to restrict law enforcement from engaging in sexual activities while on the job.

Attention to this issue comes in response to a recent Sun News investigation revealing that a private investigator, hired on behalf of Horry County law enforcement in 2019 to help shut down illicit massage parlors, participated in sex acts with potential human trafficking victims as part of his investigation.

“Angry” and “disappointed” were the first two words that came to mind for state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet, after reading the story.

“In these cases, many of these women or girls could, in fact, and probably are victims of sex trafficking, and here we are, paying for them to be victimized again,” he said. “I find that abhorrent, and we should do something about it.”

The investigation, which led to more than 20 spas closing via nuisance laws, cost more than $65,000, split among police agencies in Horry County, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach, according to invoices that were provided to the paper through open records requests.

The Columbia-area investigator, who died last year, went undercover into the massage businesses posing as a customer, soliciting sex acts in exchange for money and detailed his interactions in a 126-page report.

Law enforcement experts and advocates who reviewed portions of the report at a reporter’s request balked at the “improper” and unnecessary investigation and noted clear signs of human trafficking that should have been investigated further.

Legislation needed?

Other states, including Arizona and Michigan, have specifically outlawed law enforcement officers from engaging in sexual conduct with subjects of an investigation, a move that Goldfinch said “seems pretty commonsensical.”

“Maybe we ought to do that or maybe we ought to go a little further than that,” he said. “… I don’t have ownership of an idea right now, but my thoughts are that we should do something.”

S.C. Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, and Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach, shared a similar desire to prevent this type of investigation from happening again.

Fry, who has sponsored numerous bills aimed at diminishing human trafficking in recent years, said he believes the Legislature should consider legislation to better aid potential victims and put traffickers behind bars.

“I appreciate the work of shutting down illicit operations within Horry County, … (but) I think that the process matters,” he said. “… Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be going to fund sexual services for an individual who is performing an investigation.”

Shealy, who chairs the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee, is the primary sponsor of a bill that would require massage businesses to be licensed through the state, authorizing the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Controls to inspect each location.

She said her interest in sponsoring the bill, which recently passed the Senate, was as a way to combat potential human trafficking in illicit spas — which are named one of the top locations for trafficking in South Carolina, according to the state Attorney General’s latest annual report.

Under current law, only individual massage therapists are required to be licensed through the state, not the businesses, and Shealy hopes the prospect of inspections will deter or spot and stop these illicit activities.

Shealy described the investigation in Horry County as unethical, and she said she’d likely consult with the Attorney General’s Office on legislation to restrict similar behavior in the future, though it will have to wait until next session.

What are other states doing?

Almost every state, except Alabama, has statutes prohibiting law enforcement or Department of Corrections employees from engaging in sexual conduct with persons who have been placed in custody, detained, incarcerated or placed on probation.

Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking organization that has helped craft legislation in South Carolina aimed at saving and protecting victims, compiled a list of state laws that address law enforcement engaging in sexual conduct on the job after being sent The Sun News’ investigation.

South Carolina is one of 19 states that only prohibits Department of Corrections or Department of Juvenile Justice employees from engaging in that behavior.

Legislators introduced a bill last session to add an arresting law enforcement officer to that statute — as is the case in 22 other states — but it never made it out of committee.

Sarah Bendtsen, Shared Hope’s director of state legislative advocacy, said that those laws, which are meant to address the power dynamic between an officer and incarcerated individual, wouldn’t have prevented or criminalized the private investigator’s actions in Horry County.

“Law enforcement, especially one acting in an undercover capacity, are not perceived as being in a position of authority and therefore the statute wouldn’t apply,” she said.

Even in the few states that prohibit law enforcement from engaging in sexual conduct with subjects of an investigation, Bendtsen said there are loopholes because a case could be made with regard to the spa investigation that the employees weren’t specifically the subject of the investigation.

Michigan is the only state currently prohibiting law enforcement from engaging in sexual conduct while on duty, which Bendtsen said she believes is the only way states can prevent law enforcement from using sex acts as an investigative tool.

Former solicitor weighs in

Not every lawmaker was critical of the investigator’s actions or in favor of restricting law enforcement from engaging in similar behavior.

Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, said he understands that the nature of undercover work sometimes requires an officer to engage in criminal behaviors to avoid detection.

“I am okay with the investigation just kind of knowing how these things go, but it is unsettling,” he said. “It’s not pretty, but I understand the need to, when you’re trying to catch a criminal, sometimes you need to act like a criminal.”

Hembree is the former 15th Circuit Solicitor, preceding current Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, who filed the nuisance cases against the massage parlors and previously defended the investigation. Attorney James Battle, who served as special prosecutor for the investigation, is also Hembree’s son-in-law.

Hembree said preventing law enforcement from engaging in sexual conduct as part of an investigation could lead to police just avoiding prostitution of sex trafficking investigations altogether, which would ultimately result in criminal enterprises expanding and more people being trafficked.

He said internal police policies typically encourage officers from not going any further than needed to make the case.

Surfside Beach Police Chief Kenneth previously told The Sun News he wouldn’t permit his officers to engage in sex acts as part of an undercover operation. The North Myrtle Beach Public Safety Department Code of Conduct also prohibits on-duty employees from soliciting or engaging in sexual activities, according to city spokesman Pat Dowling.

Myrtle Beach Police Cpl. Tom Vest referred a reporter to the department’s online policy manual, but nothing specifically references an officer engaging in sexual activities. Horry County Police spokeswoman Mikayla Moskov declined to comment, citing a county policy not to offer commentary on matters related to pending litigation.

Hembree said he believes there has to be an overt act to prove the criminal activity.

“It’s not like (an officer is) doing this so they can have some sexual experience,” Hembree said. “That’s not the goal; the goal is to catch the person, but you’ve got to get sufficient evidence to make that case.”

He said he would consider supporting an effort to redefine prostitution in a way that would lessen the amount of evidence needed to ensure a successful prosecution.

S.C. laws currently define prostitution as “engaging or offering to engage in sexual activity with or for another in exchange for anything of value.”

Related stories from Myrtle Beach Sun News

Profile Image of David Weissman

Investigative projects reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News in 2018 after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, and he’s earned South Carolina Press Association and Keystone Media awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education. He graduated from University of Richmond in 2014.

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