Want a Rape Kit Tested in Houston? Tax a Strip Club!

HOUSTON, Tex.—The Hospitality Executives of Houston, a group of local strip club owners, has sued the city of Houston over a tax enacted last June that would require the clubs to remit to the state $5 for each entrant to a club, regardless of whether that patron bought anything inside.

The law, dubbed the "Rape Kit Funding Ordinance" (RFKO), was the brainchild of Republican City Councilperson Nancy Cohen, the woman who was also responsible, when she was a state assemblyperson, for Texas's Sexually Oriented Business Fee Act, which imposed a $5 charge on entrants to any strip club in the state, with the taxes collected to be used for health insurance for the state's poor and to subsidize costs related to sexual assaults in the state.

Houston's current fee/tax is slated to be used to fund the testing of the contents of the roughly 6,600 rape kits collected by the city over the past few years, but which sit in storage because budget cuts have made it impossible for the police to complete that mission. Of course, no one, least of all Nancy Cohen, has produced any evidence that attendance at strip clubs—even the semi-nude ones owned by the Hospitality Executives—either causes or contributes to the incidence of rape in the city.

"The backlog was created because the City of Houston, City Council members and four successive city mayors refused to provide funding for the processing of this evidence," the club owners' complaint states. "No reliable scientific assessment has been made to the evidentiary value, if any, which will be gleaned from processing these specimens that have languished in questionable conditions for decades."

The clubs, which have said that they will have to pass along the $5 charge to their customers, are concerned that the increase in door fees will lead to fewer customers, especially since the state's $5 fee is in addition to the city's charge.

Claiming that the $5 "fee" is actually an illegal "occupation tax," the club owners' complaint, drafted by Houston attorney James Pianelli and prominent Los Angeles-based First Amendment attorney John Weston, argues that, "The entrance fees imposed on adult establishments by the RFKO are municipal fees which are not based on the cost of processing license applications or investigating license applicants. Consequently, the RFKO is facially invalid."

The city recently sent letters to all strip clubs warning that they must remit both the fees collected and the required attendance records related to those fees to the city by October 20, and that if they fail to do so, they will be subject to civil and criminal penalties including 10 percent interest on unpaid fees and "a civil penalty equal to 15 percent of the total amount." Failure to submit reports or pay fees may subject the club owner to a fine of at least $100 and not more than $500 per day of non-compliance.

In filing their lawsuit, the clubs have asked the courts to issue an injunction to prevent enforcement of the law.