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. Additional warrants may be issued as the evidence is further pursued.
Most of the men will face charges for soliciting prostitution. Depending on the circumstances of the individual events, some of the men may not be booked into the County jail. Residents of Florida may receive a notice in the mail saying they are summoned to appear in court; out of state residents may have warrants issued for their arrest in Florida. Different agencies in Florida may handle charging and booking differently; e.g., in related investigations, Martin County arrested and then booked sex buyers, and posted each mug shot online; Palm County did not book them or post photos, and Indian River County agencies posted photos before the arrests occurred. A Martin County law firm filed two emergency petitions looking to block the release of videotapes and customer lists involving several massage spas accused of human trafficking and prostitution last week.
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.”
- 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)