OAKLAND -- A significant problem with human trafficking has led the city to sue three hotels police say are hot spots for prostitution, City Attorney John Russo said Wednesday.
The public nuisance suits, filed Tuesday, will ask the court to close each hotel for a year and fine each one $25,000, though Russo said he'd prefer to have the hotel operators solve the problem by doing a better job keeping prostitution off the premises.
Of the three, according to the lawsuits, the human trafficking issue is worst at the Economy Inn at 122 E. 12th St., near the southern shore of Lake Merritt. The suit Russo filed cites numerous recent arrests there for rape and kidnapping, often with underage girls as the victims and often related to prostitution, according to police.
Several men working at the hotel Wednesday declined to give their names or comment. Refusing to give his name, one man said, "We have no knowledge of what's going on."
The other hotels -- the Sage Motel at 4844 MacArthur Blvd., near Mills College, and the National Lodge at 1711 International Blvd. at the corner of 17th Avenue -- have not had the same problem with violence or kidnapping, according to the court documents, but have seen multiple recent arrests for prostitution, including incidents with underage girls, the lawsuits claim.
"These hotels operate as houses of prostitution more or less openly," Russo said. "Not even the most basic steps are taken to prevent it, and if you look at each one, it's almost as if they've been designed to be no-tell motels."
The hotel operators have not necessarily committed a crime, Russo said, but are culpable for facilitating the crimes that occur on their property. Neither Russo, police spokesperson Officer Holly Joshi nor Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, who collaborated in the suits, said they could remember the owners encountering serious legal trouble before now.
"Oakland has unfortunately gotten a lot of attention as a place where trafficking is a big problem," O'Malley said, calling on local businesses to either join the struggle against trafficking or face the scrutiny of the law if they facilitate the problem.
A relief manager at the Sage Motel declined to comment, but a manager at the National Lodge said he's struggled to combat the misuse of his hotel without much success, and his requests for help haven't gone anywhere.
"I say no to 10 to 15 people every day because I'm scared they're using the room for that," said John Patel, who said his father owns the National Lodge. The hotel is equipped with multiple security cameras and several signs warning away solicitors, and Patel said he scans the ID or drivers license of everyone who rents a room, to little avail.
"A lot of prostitutes are not the ones who rent the room," Patel said. "A man rents the room and in the morning the girl drops off the key. I say, 'I didn't rent that room to you,' and she says, 'I stayed with the man.'"
Further, Patel said, when he calls 911, "they say it's not a big problem," and police either don't respond at all or are slow to arrive.
Joshi, who worked for years in the department's human trafficking task force, said calls reporting prostitution are second-tier priority, coming after more urgent crimes like robbery, assault, or a break-in in which the victim is at home.
However, if a caller reports that a minor may be involved in the prostitution, that bumps the priority of the call to the upper tier, Joshi added.
The problem certainly isn't limited to the three named hotels, officials agreed, as prostitution is a huge problem all along "The Track," which runs along International Boulevard from 1st Avenue to the San Leandro border. The stretches with the worst child prostitution problem run roughly from 1st to 18th avenues and from High Street to about 54th Avenue.
Russo said the three hotels have been targeted specifically simply because they are the ones where the evidence is strong enough for a win in court.
Patel said he's exasperated by the problem and feels unfairly targeted by police. He also said he doesn't know what else to do.
Joshi and Russo both said the hotel operators can do a number of simple things to tackle the problem, including requiring official ID from guests and installing gates to close off the hotel parking lots to the public. All three hotels already require ID, and parking lots in all three are open and accessible from the street. However, Russo said, "There's not a check list of items that will get these guys off the hook. We're interested in results, not input."
No court date has been scheduled in any of the suits, but Russo will be considering asking for temporary restraining orders to be issued quickly, a spokesman said.
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.