Evaluating the strip club settlement

Some interesting feedback on the city’s recent legal settlement with area strip clubs.

South Texas College of Law professor Matthew Festa said the payments are not his central concern, noting cities often condition building permits on a business planting trees or building sidewalks. Festa said the deal presents a separation of powers issue, however, in that Mayor Annise Parker’s administration is selectively enforcing city rules. It also raises a due process issue by creating a two-tiered approach to enforcement, he said.

The ordinance remains in force as written for clubs not involved in the settlement. In addition to the three-foot rule, the ordinance requires that such businesses operate at least 1,500 feet from schools, day cares, parks and churches.

“ ’You close down the private rooms, and we’ll back down on the three-foot rule.’ Those are great examples of compromise and deliberation that are supposed to be made and decided on by the legislative body, which is the City Council,” Festa said. “The settlement may, in fact, reflect a good judgment about what the law should be, but until that becomes what the law is, it’s problematic for the city to not enforce it uniformly.”

Kellen Zale, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, had fewer concerns about two-tiered enforcement. She said the outcome strikes her as similar to grandfathering, which happens regularly in all cities, particular zoned cities where businesses that exist before land use rules change can operate under the old rules.

“The local government is exercising its police power and saying, ‘In exchange for you helping with our vice requirements, we can help with your, I guess, clothing requirements,’ ” she said. “It’s within their police power to make these arrangements that change the land use requirements or the business operation requirements for a particular business.”

Amy Farrell, a Northeastern University criminologist and human trafficking expert, found the settlement surprising. Small charges for such things as violating the three-foot rule can be useful for police, she said, helping them gain leverage for a wider trafficking probe.

“There certainly have been cities in the U.S. that have created agreements with businesses, but those were more on the regulation side and didn’t have this explicit pay-back system,” Farrell said. “We hope that communities would provide the resources to pursue these cases without needing to make bargains with strip clubs.”

Still, Farrell said, the information sharing between businesses and police, and the money to fund additional officers, could be valuable.

Mary Burke, executive director of the nonprofit Project to End Human Trafficking, refers to Houston as city that is making progress on human trafficking, but said the settlement “feels slimy.”

“I have mixed reactions. Are we somehow colluding with the perpetrator by taking this money?” she said. “That’s really fantastic to see that much money go to a human trafficking unit. I hope some of that money is given to groups who help survivors.”

Burke said she is among those who believe all sex businesses exploit and objectify women, and said she is concerned the elimination of the three-foot rule could lead to more dancers being touched or grabbed in unwelcome ways.

This story said that only five sexually-oriented businesses agreed to the deal; the original story and the Mayor’s press release said there were 16. I’m not exactly sure what accounts for the difference, but my guess is that it means five more besides the original 16 plaintiffs. Just a guess. Anyway, my impression was that it’s a reasonable deal, and it does have the effect of resolving this ridiculously long series of lawsuits and appeals. I gather that something like this hasn’t been tried anywhere else, so we’ll see how it goes. I think it was worth trying. Check back in a year or two and we’ll see if the parties involved still feel that way.

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