City ordinance aimed at human trafficking requires warrantless searches

April 20, 2022

 A photo of a woman giving a therapeutic massage (Getty Images).


A group of massage therapists is suing the City of Billings because it says new laws aimed at protecting victims of sex trafficking are violating their constitutional rights, forcing them to choose between a paycheck or their freedom.

They filed suit in federal district court in Billings alleging the city is forcing them to submit to unreasonable, unwarranted and illegal searches and seizure without due process or even so much as probable cause. Even more, they can be required to turn over patient records to city employees without a warrant, possibly disclosing sensitive information without a client even knowing it.

The city adopted the stricter licensing rules as a means to combat human trafficking and illegal prostitution in businesses that often masquerade as spas, massage parlors or body treatment. In crafting the law, the City Council believed that adding elements like surprise inspections and unannounced searches would help deter illegal sex businesses, but therapists said they’ve been unfairly targeted because some human traffickers have attempted to disguise themselves. Instead, they said the city should have worked hard to regulate the illicit sexually-oriented businesses rather than picking on legitimate, credible massage therapists.

“So if a group of thieves and robbers decided to set up a business as plumbers, would the city be subjecting every plumber to new rules or would they address the crime?” asked Deborah Kimmet, the executive director of the Business League for Massage Therapy and Bodywork. Kimmet is a licensed massage therapist in Missoula.

The lawsuit asks the court to “vindicate the Fourth Amendment rights of licensed and law-abiding massage clients in Billings.”


A quid pro woah?


According to Billings City ordinance, if a licensed massage therapist wants a business license to operate in Montana’s largest city, the therapist must consent to unannounced, warrantless searches. That includes opening any doors, examining files and inspecting a patient calendar. If the therapist refuses, they can’t be licensed in the city.

“For a therapist to insist 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,” the lawsuit states. “The ordinance does not significantly limit the timing, frequency, duration, or scope of the authorized searches.”

The city’s administration did not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

Massage therapists are licensed by the state to practice, and can be licensed by national accrediting boards and bodies. The therapists raise concerns not just about their own practice, but the safety and privacy of the records that may be obtained through a search.

“Each massage therapist keeps a version of a … chart for some or all of their patients,” the suit said. “This document contains sensitive information concerning a patient’s prior injuries and trauma, which can be a combination of physical, sexual or psychological, including how pain or injury affects the patient’s activities of daily life.”

Some of the therapists — to protect patients’ privacy and their own liability — are keeping a separate set of treatment notes and logs so that names and sensitive personal information aren’t disclosed in a warrantless inspection.

During discussions of the ordinance, advocates told massage therapists that code enforcement officers from the city would be unlikely to target legitimate massage businesses, reserving the tool to help target businesses masquerading as massage therapists. But on March 7, one of the therapists was inspected.

“The officers entered the private areas of the business, including massage rooms, the business’ outdoor and storage area, and employee lockers. They took photos as they opened the doors and cabinets,” the lawsuit said.

The owner did not interfere or prevent the searches “despite her objections and their intrusiveness, for fear of risking criminal sanctions or nonlicensure.”


Other options available


Kimmet believes that other options were available, and that enforcing sex trafficking should not be the responsibility of code enforcement, often a civil matter, while human trafficking and prostitution is a criminal offense and handled by the criminal justice system.

She said most engaging in an illegal massage parlor won’t apply for a license anyway, rather just change the type of business it uses as a cover.

She also resented Billings Mayor Bill Cole, who asked why the therapists “couldn’t just take one for the team?”

“Once it became clear they were not interested in helping, I expressed my surprise that they didn’t seem to want to compromise in any way,” Cole said. “I can’t remember the phrasing, but I said something along the lines of in order to reduce human trafficking, we might all have to take one for the team.”

Cole told the Daily Montanan that already the city has seen signs of the ordinance working as many suspected sexually-oriented businesses have disappeared.

Kimmet said the best strategy on illegal sexually-oriented businesses is to put pressure on landlords. Most of the parlors don’t purchase property and rely on renting. She said that’s a great opportunity to pressure landlords not to operate illegal businesses on their property.

“It’s pretty clear when you walk in the door what kind of business it is,” Kimmet said.

Many illegal sex shops are 24-hour, have back entrances, use neon and other symbols to communicate with clients – something normally not associated with legitimate licensed massage therapists.

There are other ways for clients seeking therapeutic massage to avoid walking into a sexually-oriented business, including checking with the state to find a licensed massage therapist. Clients should also ask what techniques and therapies the therapist uses. And, even websites like “Look Before You Book” have been developed to talk about the issue of massage and human trafficking.

“A violation of the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions occurs when the government conditions the issuance of a license upon an unconstitutional demand,” the lawsuit said, quoting from a previous 2013 federal case. “An individual made subject to an unconstitutional condition need not suffer additional injury resulting from the actual surrender of the coerced waiver of a right to seek redress in court.”

Lawyers for the therapists argue, “consent to a search cannot be coerced. When the government ‘seeks to rely upon consent to justify the lawfulness of a search, (it) has the burden of proving that the consent was, in fact, freely and voluntarily given. This burden cannot be discharged by showing no more than acquiescence to a claim of lawful authority.’”

The case argues that by threat of prosecution, sanctions, jail time or fines that massage therapists must either trade their constitutional rights or risk being shut down or jailed for refusing.

“Human trafficking is a crime. Massage therapy is not,” Kimmet said. “The problem is that it stigmatizes all of us and puts us in danger. Regulating us as if we were the criminals and the problem instead of separating the problems – they’ve lumped us in with all of it. We’re not a sexually-oriented business, and we’re not trying to malign legal sexually-oriented business.”

She laments that in many ways the law has pitted women against women. It was women, including former city Councilmember Penny Ronning, who led the charge against sex trafficking, against massage therapists, who are overwhelmingly women, against those who are trafficked, who are also women.

“We’ve been bullied,” Kimmet said. “Instead of putting some lipstick on a pig, they’re now putting make-up on it. But it’s still a pig. And you can’t change that.”


New Census Bureau estimates chart Montana’s population shifts during the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kalispell led the pack.

Gallatin County, which spans Bozeman and many surrounding communities, has for years been Montana’s fastest-growing county, often adding enough people to rank the Bozeman micropolitan area (officially at “metropolitan” status as of 2020) one of the fastest-growing small cities in the nation.

Gallatin added 3,211 new residents over the July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021 period covered by the new data,: for an annual increase of 2.7%. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted migration patterns, the Kalispell region took Bozeman’s crown. As is the case across the state, new arrivals were the driving demographic force.

Montana's 2020–2021 population shifts

−3.0%−1.0%0.0%1.0%3.0%5.0%Percent changeTotal change20 people100 people1,000 people
MissoulaMiles CityKalispellHavreButteBozemanHelenaBillingsGreat Falls
Data: U.S. Census Bureau. Graphic: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Flathead County, which also includes Whitefish and Columbia Falls, added 3,681 people between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, according to the Census Bureau. That’s a 3.5% growth rate.

South of Missoula, Ravalli County grew even faster on a percentage basis, at 3.6% year over year. With Ravalli’s population roughly half of Flathead’s, though, that meant fewer new people — about 1,600.

Montana as a whole, in comparison, posted 1.7% population growth overall, adding just more than 18,000 people between 2020 and 2021. 

Several rural counties in western Montana also posted eye-catching growth figures, adding hundreds of residents and growing even faster in percentage terms than Flathead and Ravalli counties: Mineral (Superior) and Broadwater (Townsend) at 6.5% each, and Sanders (Thompson Falls) and Lincoln (Libby) at 4.1% and 4.0%, respectively.

Those growth trends generally align with state tax filing data presented by legislative fiscal analysts in March, which described high growth rates in the state’s urban areas and rural northwest counties. The tax data, which estimated migration based on the number of tax filers in each county, indicated faster growth for Gallatin County (5.2%) than Flathead County (4.5%). 

The new county-level figures published by the Census Bureau’s Population and Housing Unit Estimates program, represent interim figures intended to tide over the nation’s data-hungry demographers, public officials and citizens between the bureau’s once-a-decade counts, conducted most recently in 2020.

In contrast to the decennial census effort, which tries to count every American resident directly, the annual population estimates are produced by taking the most recent census count and adjusting it to account for births, deaths and migration. The birth and death counts used for those adjustments are tallied from birth and death certificates. Migration is estimated based on government records including federal tax returns and Medicare enrollment data. 

The 2021 population estimates indicate that migration was by far the most significant population driver for Montana in the year following the 2020 census. Without it, Montana’s population would have shrunk, since the state saw just over 12,000 deaths and about 10,500 births, a net loss of about 1,500 residents. Accounting for people who moved in and people who left for other places, the state added nearly 20,000 new residents.

U.S. Census Bureau-estimated population change for Montana Counties, 2020-2021

County Annual Growth 2021 Population Population Change Net Migration
Mineral 6.5% 4,860 +295 +326
Broadwater 6.5% 7,288 +442 +461
Petroleum 4.2% 519 +21 +21
Sanders 4.1% 12,959 +508 +609
Lincoln 4.0% 20,525 +794 +991
Ravalli 3.6% 45,959 +1,608 +1,887
Flathead 3.5% 108,454 +3,681 +3,881
Carbon 3.2% 10,847 +335 +405
Garfield 3.2% 1,209 +37 +40
Musselshell 3.1% 4,896 +149 +195
Madison 3.0% 8,917 +260 +329
Jefferson 2.8% 12,470 +337 +393
Gallatin 2.7% 122,713 +3,211 +2,881
Lake 2.5% 32,033 +774 +868
Meagher 2.0% 1,964 +39 +40
Pondera 1.9% 5,994 +112 +125
Daniels 1.7% 1,686 +28 +33
Montana 1.7% 1,104,271 +18,078 +19,791
Park 1.6% 17,473 +280 +354
Beaverhead 1.6% 9,524 +152 +197
Lewis and Clark 1.6% 72,223 +1,130 +1,310
Sweet Grass 1.4% 3,723 +52 +64
Fergus 1.4% 11,617 +160 +209
Prairie 1.4% 1,091 +15 +18
Golden Valley 1.3% 831 +11 +3
Judith Basin 1.3% 2,044 +27 +19
Yellowstone 1.3% 167,146 +2,101 +2,200
Missoula 1.1% 119,533 +1,295 +1,325
Granite 1.1% 3,344 +36 +50
Carter 1.1% 1,428 +15 +14
Toole 0.9% 5,011 +47 +34
Powell 0.9% 6,999 +65 +115
Treasure 0.9% 768 +7 +9
Deer Lodge 0.8% 9,491 +78 +147
Silver Bow 0.7% 35,411 +243 +452
Wibaux 0.6% 934 +6 +12
Powder River 0.5% 1,702 +9 +18
Custer 0.5% 11,916 +57 +130
Teton 0.4% 6,269 +27 +36
Roosevelt 0.4% 10,821 +41 +31
Stillwater 0.4% 9,044 +34 +62
Chouteau 0.3% 5,916 +17 +46
Glacier 0.3% 13,785 +38 −2
Sheridan 0.3% 3,527 +9 +38
Cascade 0.2% 84,511 +183 +233
Phillips 0.0% 4,192 +2 +13
Valley −0.2% 7,537 −14 +23
Dawson −0.2% 8,904 −18 −19
Blaine −0.3% 6,980 −22 −23
Hill −0.4% 16,179 −71 −121
Fallon −0.5% 3,017 −16 −29
Liberty −0.7% 1,946 −14 −28
Big Horn −0.7% 12,957 −94 −136
McCone −0.9% 1,718 −15 −21
Wheatland −1.6% 2,059 −34 −25
Richland −1.9% 11,283 −218 −248
Rosebud −2.1% 8,124 −174 −204

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


April 19, 2022



Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus was detected in a snow goose from Canyon Ferry and a Canada goose from near Belgrade last week, according to a news release Monday from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

FWP also said HPAI was detected earlier this month in domestic poultry in Judith Basin and Cascade counties, and it said several more birds from around the state are currently undergoing testing for the virus.

This is the first time since 2015 that HPAI has been detected in Montana, when it was identified in a captive gyrfalcon and then shortly afterward in in a backyard poultry flock in Judith Basin County, according to FWP.

The FWP news release also said the following:

Avian influenza (AI) virus is a naturally occurring virus in birds. AI viruses are classified into two groups based on the severity of disease they cause in infected poultry. Low pathogenic AI viruses generally cause no clinical illness, or only minor symptoms in birds. HPAI viruses are extremely infectious and fatal to poultry and some species of wild birds.

Detection of HPAI in Newfoundland and Labrador in eastern Canada was announced in December 2021. Since it was first detected in the eastern United States in January 2022, it has spread to all four bird migration flyways, including the Central and Pacific flyways which include parts of Montana.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers risk of HPAI spread to humans to be very low, Montanans should take precautions when handling game birds or any sick or dead bird they find. Whenever possible, avoid contact with sick or dead wildlife. Even if a bird is not suspected to have died from a contagious disease, gloves should always be worn if a dead animal must be handled for disposal.

The public is encouraged to report unusual or unexplained cases of sickness and/or death of wild birds by calling their local wildlife biologist or the wildlife lab in Bozeman at 406-577-7880 or 406-577-7882.

Bird hunters and those who maintain bird feeders should follow these simple precautions when processing or handling wild game, FWP said:

  • Do not harvest or handle wild birds that are obviously sick or found dead.
  • Wear disposable latex or rubber gloves while cleaning game or cleaning bird feeders.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke while cleaning game.
  • People and equipment that have been in contact with wild game birds should avoid contact with back yard poultry flocks.
  • Wash hands with soap and water or alcohol wipes immediately after handling game or cleaning bird feeders.
  • Wash tools and work surfaces used to clean game birds with soap and water, then disinfect with a 10 percent solution of chlorine bleach—one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water.
  • Separate raw meat, and anything it touches, from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to avoid contamination.
  • Cook game meat thoroughly to an internal temperature of at least 165°F.
  • Wild birds don’t need supplemental feed this time of year. Taking feeders down prevents concentrations of birds that sometimes lead to disease transmission.

For more information on AI in wild birds, visit, or visit the USGS website at


 Despite flooding that has closed parts of Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman hotels are still fetching head-spinning rates.

Continuing a trend from last summer, some downtown Bozeman hotels are again fetching head-spinning nightly rates. Credit: Nick Ehli / MTFP

BOZEMAN — Unlike smaller towns near the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, there are so far few indications that Bozeman will be taking a hit on travel and tourism as a result of devastating flooding that wrecked access roads and other facilities in and near the park.

Prices for hotel rooms throughout the city are still running at head-spinning high rates, even after the closure last week of the northern entrances to the park, with some places asking and getting well over $500 a night.

Even higher rates for hotel rooms existed in 2021. Prices for lodging increased significantly last year in part because of the easing of the pandemic from 2020, said Brian Sprenger, president and CEO of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. “People were willing to pay those prices,” Sprenger said.

Several hotel operators in Bozeman were reluctant to speak on the record about pricing and impacts on tourism, but some who did expressed optimism for a successful summer.

“We’re not too concerned,” said Cameron Carter, who works the front desk at the RSVP Hotel on Seventh Avenue. According to, the RSVP was asking $372 a night for the weekend of July 15-17. “We do rank our prices on what other hotels are doing so if they go up, we go up. If they go down, we go down,” Carter said.

“Bozeman is not being too affected by the flooding at all.”

Providing some ballast for the expectations on a profitable summer was the announcement that the southern entrance to Yellowstone through West Yellowstone would reopen on Wednesday.

Sprenger said it is likely people who already made reservations to visit Montana this summer will adapt their plans according to where they can travel in Yellowstone and elsewhere. 

“It really comes down to what was their expectation for coming out here,” Sprenger said. “Was it absolutely Yellowstone Park or was it a western vacation? Was it Montana scenery and Yellowstone was a part of that? So it is a little bit tough to define because each individual has their own expectation.”

A representative with the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a telephone message and email seeking comment.

“It really comes down to what was their expectation for coming out here. Was it absolutely Yellowstone Park or was it a western vacation?”


National Park officials have announced that beginning Wednesday, the park will allow visitors access to the south loop of Yellowstone, with access from Bozeman through West Yellowstone. Accessible areas will include Madison, Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village and Norris.

The park will be using an alternating license plate system, allowing access to cars with plate numbers ending in odd numbers on odd days and even numbers on even days. Personalized plates will be in the odd category, and plates with a mix of letters and numbers will use the last numerical digit to determine what days they may enter. 

“Thanks to the tremendous efforts of our teams and partners, we are prepared to open the south loop of Yellowstone,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a statement. 

The north and northeast entrances to the park remain closed to visitors, and the towns outside of those entrances are looking at a rough economic summer.

Sprenger noted that the overwhelming majority of visitors to Montana do not arrive by airplane, so he was expecting limited impact on operations at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, by far the state’s busiest airport. 

“We expected this year to be relatively flat but still up 40 percent compared to 2019,” Sprenger said. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand to travel. For our market, tourism is only about 30 percent.”

Shiann Jenkins, the newly hired general manager of the MyPlace Hotel in Bozeman, said the hotel experienced an immediate increase in occupancy in the days after the closure of Yellowstone, and she is expecting a vibrant summer of traffic through the hotel, where rates were running at about $225 a night.. 

“Here in Bozeman, Montana, there’s so much to do, there’s so much history here,” she said. “And it’s so dang beautiful that I don’t think it will affect us long term.”

Ben Turczyn, a front desk associate at the AC Hotel Downtown Bozeman, said the majority of visitors to his hotel are business travelers but noted that tourists he’s spoken to are open to changing their travel plans to adjust to the partial closure of Yellowstone. 

“I would continue to expect Bozeman to have a busy summer,” Turczyn said. His hotel was charging $588 a night for a stay on July 15-17, according to He said callers have been asking about alternatives to visiting Yellowstone, including questions about Big Sky and Glacier National Park. 

“Most people, once they hear there are other places other than Yellowstone specifically,” he added, “they seem to be pretty OK with still coming to Bozeman.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated June 23 to better reflect what some downtown hotels are typically charging per night. While a search for rooms on Trip Advisor did show that a room at the Element Bozeman was over $1,500 a night for a weekend in June, McKayla Murphy, director of sales for the Element, said after this story was first published that the current price for a room on a typical summer weekend night is $599.


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