Houston Peep show owner gets jail term for city violation

Houston – from www.chron.com – Prosecutors won a dramatic victory in their war against unlicensed sexually oriented businesses when a Harris County jury handed adult arcade owner Eugene Etheridge a four-month jail sentence for illegally running his video peep show in southwest Houston.

The Jan. 6 verdict marks the first time prosecutors have obtained a criminal conviction under the city’s 1997 sexually oriented business ordinance.

Etheridge, a longtime opponent of the city’s efforts to regulate his industry, also was assessed a $2,000 fine and barred from reopening his Gaslight News & Video at 3519 Bellaire. The arcade, which consisted of individual pornographic video viewing booths, was closed last summer after the city obtained an injunction against his operation. Etheridge voluntarily closed his adult retail shop at the same location.

Defense attorney Phllip Slaughter said Etheridge has been released on bond pending appeal.

Etheridge, 60, continues to face civil and criminal cases stemming from his operation of a second sexually oriented business, the Big City News & Video at 10105 Gulf Freeway.

Houston police vice officer Matthew Dexter said Etheridge’s conviction stems from a three-year investigation, which began after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the city ordinance’s constitutionality in January 2007. Etheridge first challenged city efforts to regulate sexually oriented businesses on free speech grounds in 1991. He continued his opposition to the 1997 ordinance, which was tied up in court more than a decade.

The measure restricts sexually oriented businesses’ proximity to schools and churches or location in residential neighborhoods.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Amy Ballantino described her prosecution of Etheridge as “a pretty straightforward case.”

“He was operating without a permit,” she said. Even if Etheridge had applied for a license, such a request likely would have been denied because the business is near a Roman Catholic church and school, prosecutors said.

Slaughter said his client operated Gaslight without a permit because city officials led him to believe he was legally operating as long as his adult merchandise constituted no more than half his stock.

“There still seems to be a lot of confusion over this law,” Slaughter said, adding that Etheridge likely was targeted by authorities because of his prominence in opposing the ordinance. “He has fought this for two decades,” Slaughter said. “He has challenged it each step of the way.”

Houston lawyer Patrick Zummo, who represented the city as outside counsel while the ordinance moved through the courts, characterized Etheridge as “a real major person in the arcade business.”

“He was lead plaintiff in the constitutional challenge,” he said. “Just in terms of somebody who was not afraid and tried to represent his industry, he probably stands out more.”

Nirja Aiyer, senior assistant city attorney, said Etheridge’s conviction marked a milestone in cooperation between city and county prosecutors in a multifaceted case. “It was a really good collaborative effort,” she said. “We’re moving forward.”
Civil trial in June

Etheridge’s civil trial related to Big City News & Video is set for June.

Under former Mayor Bill White’s administration, the city doggedly pursued the owners of sexually oriented businesses, predominantly through civil litigation that forced the temporary shutdown of strip clubs or “hot sheet” motels. A spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker said she is in the process of reviewing the city’s enforcement of that ordinance in consultation with the police and city legal departments.

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