Jefferson Parish law enforcement has a new tool to help officials crack down on prostitution and drug crimes at hotels and motels in the unincorporated sections of the parish: a system of regulations that could shut down establishments that become havens for crime.
The Jefferson Parish Council unanimously approved an ordinance Wednesday creating a new licensing system for hotels and motels and giving regulators the ability to close those that are repeatedly found to be allowing or abetting illegal activity on their property.
Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, the daughter of former Sheriff Harry Lee, sponsored the measure, which has been under discussion for years. During that time, Lee-Sheng and other officials have tried to hammer out a set of rules that would not be seen as unworkable or overly burdensome to legitimate businesses.
“We really don’t have a way to address some very serious things going on at the hotels,” Lee-Sheng said. “There’s a lot of hotel managers that cooperate with law enforcement. But there’s instances where law enforcement feels there’s a manager on the inside, someone helping out or facilitating some of the illegal activity.”
While those crimes have mainly involved drugs and prostitution — including out-of-town operations that take up residence in Jefferson Parish hotels during large events — they also include violence and other issues, Lee-Sheng said.
Mavis Early, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association, said hotel operators support cracking down on crime and are not eager to have criminal operations in their midst. But she said her group decided not to take a formal position on the ordinance because of concerns that some aspects of the regulations could be interpreted in a way that would punish hotels merely because they aren’t aware of everything happening in every room on their property.
The rules are based on the same idea as the parish’s regulations of businesses that sell alcohol, which can have their permits yanked for sales to underage customers. One requirement is that all hotels must apply for new licenses, with background checks for the owners.
Violations of the regulations could result in 14-day license suspensions, handed down by a panel set up to oversee the regulations, or one-year revocations, to be decided by the Parish Council.
The permits can be suspended for a variety of causes, including three drug- or prostitution-related arrests at a property within a three-month period, 10 incidents that require police to come to the property within a month or failure to fix code violations.
In the case of the incidents involving police interactions, the hotel would not be held responsible for illegal activities on the property if hotel employees initially notify the police or directly cooperate with them.
That provision is one of several aspects of the regulations that hotel operators will be watching to see how they play out in practice. Operators want to be sure hotels are not unfairly punished for not knowing about crimes occurring behind closed doors, Early said. Despite such concerns, she said, her group “didn’t want to be an obstacle to law enforcement” and so did not oppose the ordinance.
“I think we feel confident that the implementation will not adversely affect us, but we also trust that if it does we’ll be able to sit down and work it out,” she said.
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