Licensed massage therapists in Billings, Montana, are suing the city in federal court over its law forcing therapists to submit to unannounced, warrantless searches in order to stay in business.
Billings recently enacted an intrusive local ordinance targeting massage therapists as part of a crackdown on prostitution.
There are at least a dozen “illicit sex and human-trafficking businesses disguised as massage therapy businesses” in Billings and “about 9,000 of these nationwide,” KTVQ reported a year ago while the ordinance was under consideration.
Sacramento, California-based Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a national nonprofit public interest law firm that’s representing the massage therapists, says the therapists resent being lumped in with prostitution-related businesses and being deprived of their Fourth Amendment right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“Owners of legitimate businesses should not have to surrender their constitutional rights in order to continue serving customers. No one should be forced to choose between their livelihood and their rights to property and privacy,” PLF said in a statement issued on April 6, the same day the lawsuit was initiated.
“The Billings license ordinance targets and stigmatizes the entire occupation of massage therapy. This is the wrong way to pursue goals like fighting crime.”
The legal complaint (pdf) in the case, Vondra v. City of Billings, court file cv-22-30, was filed April 6 in the U.S. District Court in Montana.
The plaintiffs are state-licensed massage therapists Theresa Vondra, Donna Podolak, and Lynda Larvie, along with Vondra’s therapy patient, Adam Poulos, who has been receiving treatment from her since suffering a workplace neck injury in 2017.
The defendants, in addition to the city, are Billings Code Enforcement Supervisor Nicole Cromwell, Billings Chief of Police Richard St. John, Business Tax Clerk Joanne Rindahl, Finance Department Director Andrew Zoeller, and Mayor William Cole—all of whom are being sued in their official capacities.
The “true passion” of the lead plaintiff, Vondra, is “helping people achieve total body wellness through massage therapy,” according to PLF. She graduated from massage therapy school in 2006 and spent several years working for others before starting her own practice in her hometown of Billings. Over time, she has grown her business to two locations and seven staff members.
Massage therapy is “a very sensitive line of work, serving a broad range of people—including those suffering from physical and psychological injuries and trauma,” [and] the ordinance “threatens the privacy” of Vondra, her patients, and her employees.
The massage therapy ordinance, Ordinance 21-5757, “makes it a crime for professional, state-licensed massage therapists to practice in the city without first obtaining a local facility license,” according to the complaint.
The ordinance conditions the local license “on the therapists’ acceptance of unannounced, warrantless, and unconstrained searches of their place of work, which often includes their homes, and of private patient records.” The legislation allows law and code enforcement officers to search “all rooms, cabinets, and storage areas,” requiring massage therapists to open “any locked rooms, cabinets, or storage areas … promptly.”
“Even active massage therapy sessions exceeding two hours in length may be interrupted by a government search,” the complaint reads.
A therapist insisting that the police “first acquire a warrant before searching their premises is to risk arrest on the spot, criminal prosecution, and incarceration under this framework.”
PLF attorney Daniel Woislaw told The Epoch Times that “this is a case about both property rights and privacy rights, and it’s borne out of an alarming trend wherein local, state, and federal governments increasingly take away our right to do something, and then license it back to us.”
“There are more and more activities—recreational, occupational, professional—that you now have to get the government’s permission to do,” Woislaw said.
Officials in Billings may want to go after prostitution, but “they just don’t want to have to follow the Constitution to do it, and so they’ve created this workaround for themselves where they require massage therapists to get this license,” according to Woislaw.
“And then, as a condition of the license, they say we can go in and search whenever we want,” he said. “But there is a framework for legal searches that the police are supposed to follow, the code enforcement [officers] are supposed to follow.”
With criminals on probation, “the police at least need to have reasonable suspicion to search their homes and to search them, but for massage therapists, the police don’t even need reasonable suspicion.”
“They don’t need any cause at all; they can just knock on a door,” Woislaw said. “You open it, and they say we’re here to do a search, and if you object to that—if you tell them they can’t or if you refuse to open cabinets and other places for them—they can arrest you, and you can be charged with a crime and you can even be put in jail.”
The City of Billings provided a comment by email.
“The city attorney’s office hasn’t had a chance to review the complaint,” said Victoria Hill, the city’s public information officer. “The foundation representing the therapists sent a press release to the media before the city was served.”