Three years ago, people in Miami and beyond were horrified by the story of a 13-year-old who was allegedly forced to dance at Miami Beach’s only fully nude strip joint, Club Madonna, after running away from home.
Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales issued an emergency order to revoke the club’s certificate of use. And a year later, the city passed a human-trafficking ordinance requiring nude clubs to maintain stricter records and ensure a manager is responsible for dancers’ legal working status.
But now, in a new lawsuit, Club Madonna says the city wasn't trying to protect residents or stop human trafficking. Instead, its actions were aimed at punishing the club and driving it out of business over city officials' dislike of exotic dancing and a “personal animosity” toward longtime owner Leroy Griffith.
The suit claims the city has infringed on the club's ability to provide nude performances, which it says is a constitutionally protected form of expression that contains “serious artistic value.”
The suit quotes a comment made during a meeting by Commissioner Micky Steinberg as showing the city’s true, unconstitutional intent: “Listen, I would love to not even have them in business.”
The City of Miami Beach has a policy against commenting on ongoing litigation.
The city and nude club have a long history of conflict, mostly over the Beach’s refusal to grant it a liquor license. The city doesn’t allow nude clubs to serve alcohol, but Griffith has accused officials of offering him one if he paid up.
The latest dispute began in January 2014 after three people — 36-year-old Vilbert Jean, 22-year-old Marlene San Vincente, and 18-year-old DeWayne Ward — were arrested for forcing a teen identified only as "D.J." into prostitution and stripping. D.J. ran away from home December 10, 2013, and was found by her mother weeks later, on January 6.
Over the weeks she was away from home, the girl was plied with alcohol and marijuana by the trio, who also showed her an array of guns and threatened her. After a few days, D.J. refused to continue having sex for money.
So the pimps forced her to work at Club Madonna, where San Vincente was a dancer. The young woman showed D.J. the ropes, and the 13-year-old allegedly made about $1,000, which the trio pocketed.
The new lawsuit says the teen “may have gained entry” to Club Madonna under false pretenses and might have performed there. But, it says, the club does not concede it actually happened.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Before revoking the club’s license, the city did not give notice or hold a hearing even though there were no exigent circumstances or serious danger to justify taking such action, the suit argues. The club had immediately checked the records of all the dancers to ensure they were of age.
“Any potential threat to public safety had been removed with adequate assurances that no such conduct would occur in the future,” the suit says.
The city’s ordinances are meant to censor the club’s free speech and prevent it “from spreading its message of eroticism,” the suit argues.
After D.J.’s story came to light, the club’s closure lasted 17 days. But even years later, the suit says, the club has continued to suffer a loss of patronage.