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Harris County wants to be like the city in regulating eight-liners

One of the main differences between Houston and Harris County is that the city can generally do what it wants to do while the county had to get a law passed to do the same thing.

When the city of Houston began enforcing stricter regulations on topless clubs and massage parlors, officials saw complaints against those sexually oriented businesses increase in the unincorporated parts of Harris County. Then in 2009, the Legislature granted counties the authority to regulate those kinds of establishments, which law enforcement officials said were operating as fronts for prostitution and human trafficking.

Now, Harris County is seeking similar authority from the state to regulate game rooms outside Houston city limits, which the Sheriff’s Office says have tripled in number in the last five years after the city tightened laws to combat what officials say have become hotbeds for armed robberies, homicides and other illegal activity.

“Our goal here is to make sure our law enforcement has adequate tools to make sure the law is being followed,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who said game rooms are “popping up” in north and northeast Harris County. “Whenever I’m visiting the precinct, the east side in particular, the little ladies in the Baptist church come out and say, ‘Will you please shut down the game hall that’s going on behind my church?’‚ÄČ”

Bills sponsored by Houston-area lawmakers, modeled after city of Houston ordinances, would require game rooms with five or more machines, known as “eight-liners,” to receive permits from the county, which would inspect them. The bills also would give the county the power to cite violations, which would be elevated from Class C to Class A misdemeanors, as well as limit the location and number of game rooms.

“Whenever the city bans something, then it gets moved out into the unincorporated areas, so we’ve got to be able to deal with some of these less-than-desirable activities in the unincorporated areas, and game rooms are clearly one of them,” said County Judge Ed Emmett.

Sgt. Christopher Montemayor, who supervises the vice unit in the Sheriff’s Office, told state lawmakers earlier this month that Houston-area game rooms have seen 90 aggravated robberies, six homicides – with employees, patrons or security guards as victims – in the past few years.

“These businesses are growing, and we are trying to do something to deter these illegal establishments,” Montemayor said while testifying in favor of House Bill 1127, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown. He added that “25 percent of these robberies go unreported because of the fact of the illegal activity going on there.”

See here and here for some background, and here for HB1127, which is currently pending in committee. I don’t see any obvious reason why it won’t pass, but sometimes these things happen. I just want to note that what Sgt. Montemayor says here about crimes going unreported at illegal eight-liner establishments is pretty much exactly what immigration advocates and law enforcement officials were saying two years ago during the “sanctuary cities” debate, which is that crimes against immigrants in general and undocumented immigrants in particular would increase under such a law since the victims of those crimes would be unwilling to call them in. I’m glad we didn’t have to learn that lesson the hard way.

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