Martin County is located in the Treasure Coast region of Florida, on the Atlantic Coast. Its population is about 160,000, and the county seat is the city of Stuart. Martin County is in the Port St. Lucie Metropolitan Statistical Area. Among other cities in the county is Hobe Sound. Prostitution activity have been well-documented in Hobe Sound and surrounding communities, and in surrounding unincorporated areas of Martin county. Among the more serious crimes associated with the local commercial sex market is sex trafficking. This activity and the problems and ancillary crimes it generates results in complaints to law enforcement agencies from residents and businesses.
Consumer level demand provides the revenue stream for all prostitution and sex trafficking, and has therefore been targeted by local law enforcement agencies as a strategy for prevention and response. Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputies have conducted street-level reverse stings in Stuart using female officers as decoys. A two-day reverse sting captured 13 men in 1997, but it is unknown when reverse stings first occurred in the area.
In February 2019, law enforcement agencies made announcements about several substantial investigation into allegations of human trafficking and prostitution occurring in storefront spas serving as brothels across several counties in Florida. After conducting surveillance and investigations in response to allegations, and then establishing probable cause, warrants were obtained and surveillance cameras installed in several Martin County brothels in the cities of Hobe Sound and Stuart. Initial reports said that four spas in Martin County were also involved in the multi-county investigations and enforcement actions. The six-month investigation revealed human traffickers were luring vulnerable girls to massage parlors into Florida, where they were coerced into working as prostitutes. Martin County Sheriff’s Office and Jupiter Police Department collaborated on the investigation , and collectively seized a property in Stuart, two properties in Hobe Sound, six vehicles. including luxury cars like a Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, and more than $500,000 in cash.
Evidence about sexual activity from the hidden cameras was combined with evidence from trash pulls and executing search warrants, and conducting traffic stops of vehicles leaving the brothels to confirm the identities of alleged customers. According to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, investigators uncovered about 100 “johns”, or end-users, who benefited from the “graphic sexual acts” the trafficked women were forced to perform. The accumulated evidence led to arrest warrants for over 50 sex buyers in Martin County in the first two weeks after the investigation was announced. In February 2019, 60 men were charged for soliciting prostitution. Soliciting another to commit prostitution is punishable as a second-degree misdemeanor for a first offense and a first-degree misdemeanor for a subsequent offense. A first offense carries a jail sentence of up to 60 days, and a second offense carries a sentence of up to one year. Under Florida Statutes, punishment options for people charged for the first time with soliciting a prostitute may include a diversion program that may involve performing up to 100 hours of community service and attending a course on the harmful effects of prostitution and sex trafficking “if such programs exist in the judicial circuit in which the offender is sentenced.” In April, 2019 the first of more than 60 men charged the prior February in Martin County had accepted a plea deal. The Hobe Sound resident pleaded no contest to a charge of soliciting prostitution during a hearing; prosecutors dropped a charge of use of structure or conveyance for prostitution. The County Judge placed the man on one year of probation and ordered that he serve 100 hours of community service, pay a $5,000 civil fine, and must take a class about the effects of prostitution and sex trafficking.
- Martin County Sheriff’s Office
- Stuart Police Department
- “The Palm Beach Post: Police Blotter.” 15 Feb 1997.
Brothel-Based Investigations Using Cameras; Arrest and Shaming of Sex Buyers
- https://www.wptv.com/palm-beach-county/underground-website-rubmaps-helps-customers-find-illicit-massage-parlors (2019)
- https://cbs12.com/deputies-arrest-9-more-men-in-martin-county-in-connection-to-human-trafficking-probe (2019)
- https://cbs12.com/eight-more-men-arrested-in-martin-county-as-part-of-sex-trafficking-investigation (2019)
- https://www.tcpalm.com/florida-human-sex-trafficking-ring-full-story (2019)
- https://www.keyt.com/what-we-know-so-far-about-robert-kraft-investigation/ (2019)
- https://www.wptv.comlaw-firm-files-emergency-petitions-to-block-release-video-photos-audio-from-prostitution-sting (2019)
- https://www.wsj.com/articles/inside-the-investigation-that-led-to-prostitution-charges-against-robert-kraft (2019)
- https://cbs12.com/several-more-men-arrested-in-martin-county-in-connection-to-prostitution-bust (2019)
- https://www.northcentralpa.com/news/state/who-are-the-264-men-arrested-in-the-florida-day-spa (2019)
Background on Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in the Region:
- http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2013/jul/18/woman-ties-port-st-lucie-wanted-sex-trafficking (2013)
- https://www.thewesterlysun.com/news/latest-news/storefronts-conceal-a-vast-illegal-trade-in-prostitution (2019)