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Immigration rights group says LAPD violated policy in vice raid on 'hostess club'

November 11, 2010 |  1:14 pm

Los Angeles police are defending their handling of a raid at a downtown hostess club -- an operation that resulted in dozens of arrests of illegal immigrant workers -- after an advocacy group charged that the vice operation violated Special Order 40, a policy governing how officers interact with immigrants.

Advocates from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said the LAPD officers violated that policy in arresting 81 women and seven men Friday at the 907 Club on Hill Street. The advocacy group said most of those arrested were "honest, hard-working immigrants" who might themselves have been victims of abuse.

"The LAPD has acted rashly by arresting those it claims to protect and in the process endanger the delicate balance between local policing and immigration enforcement," CHIRLA director Angelica Salas said in a statement.

Special Order 40 prohibits LAPD officers from initiating contact with someone solely to determine whether they are in the country legally. But in a statement released Wednesday, the LAPD said the four-month probe was only related to alleged criminal conduct and was not an immigration investigation.

"It is strictly an investigation into labor code violations, human trafficking concerns, prostitution, possession of fraudulent California identification cards, gambling and violation of a conditional use permit," the department said.

Club 907, like similar "hostess club" establishments, is regulated by the Los Angeles Police Commission. Patrons pay women who work at the clubs for time and companionship that includes talking, buying non-alcoholic drinks or dancing. The club charges $30 per hour, with discounts on certain days of the week.

The Police Commission permit prohibits hostess clubs from serving alcohol and does not allow nudity or other adult entertainment. But the LAPD said that during a four-month investigation their officers witnessed or found evidence of prostitution, lewd conduct, gambling and the use of counterfeit identification.

Police said that on the day of the arrests, they found more than 400 people inside the 907 Club, which had a maximum capacity of 250 patrons.

Officers said they found dozens of female dancers employed by the club with false identification for purposes of employment and found evidence that most were engaging in prostitution. Some 88 people were arrested -- 81 of them women. Only three were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit prostitution: a club manager, and two women who were brought in to dance in bikinis and were allowed to be groped by patrons, police said.

Of the others, 59 were arrested on suspicion of possession of fraudulent California identification, 18 for willfully obtaining personal information, four for gambling violations, two for misdemeanor warrants, one for interfering with police operations and one for violating the club's conditional use permits.

A 17-year-old girl who had been reported missing was found inside and was also arrested on suspicion of possessing false identification. Police also seized two bags of cocaine, over $100,000 in cash, condoms, and liquor.

A 29-year-old club worker who was out on bail Wednesday after her arrest on suspicion of possessing fraudulent identification said that while the women were detained inside the club, officers asked those with “good ID” to step forward and separated them from the others. She believed that officers were trying to determine the workers' immigration status.

The worker, who asked that her name not be used, said that she obtained false documents at the request of club management, who would direct workers to go to MacArthur Park to get identification.

LAPD officials said that during the operation, officers separated those who were patrons from those determined to be employees and management of the club.  The patrons were released.  The employees and management were taken to the LAPD’s Central Area station. 

Police said the detainees were separated because those possessing fraudulent identification had committed a crime and would be arrested. They said it had nothing to do with immigration. 

All employees who had valid identification were detained and released after booking, the LAPD said.  Those who had fraudulent or no identification were subject to questioning by the LAPD and agents with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE agents were already conducting their own investigation into the potential federal violations involving the creation and use of fraudulent identifications to gain employment status, the LAPD said.

Immigration officials later determined that 75 of the arrestees were in the country illegally. ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said Wednesday that none of them were in ICE custody.

But immigration rights advocates pointed to the arrests for false documentation or identity theft as evidence that the LAPD was most interested in the immigration status of the suspects.

CHIRLA spokesman Jorge-Mario Cabrera said the approximately 20 club workers the organization had spoken to typically worked 10 hours a day six or seven days a week. They were required to pay money out of pocket to the club if they worked less than 20 hours a week and forced to buy drinking water from the club while on shift.

"The potential victims were instead charged with a serious crime, a felony, and were turned over to immigration," Cabrera said.

According to a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, federal agents were not part of the raid at the club, but became involved to investigate whether federal crimes had been committed, including victimization of female employees. State labor investigators were also involved in the operation, according to police.

Officials said they have found no evidence of human trafficking at the club to date. Immigration attorney Jessica Dominguez, who is representing many of the club workers, said some may be eligible for a U visa, which gives temporary legal status to victims of crimes who cooperate with authorities in prosecuting the crime.

Roger Jon Diamond, an attorney representing Goliath Inc., the corporation that owns the club, said he was not aware of any allegations that management had asked employees to obtain false documents. The owners are currently investigating whether there was any wrongdoing by mid-level management employees, he said.

 "There have been no accusations of wrongdoing [against the owner], no charges, nothing has been filed, and we ask the public to wait for the investigation to be concluded," he said. "And if anybody wants to dance with a hostess, they’re free to go to the club and dance."

 -- Abby Sewell and Andrew Blankstein

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