A California judge last week dismissed criminal charges against the CEO and two former owners of Backpage.com, a website the state's attorney general said promoted prostitution and sex trafficking.
The Sacramento judge, Michael Bowman, disagreed, and threw out the case against Carl Ferrer, James Larkin and Michael Lacey. Police in Texas had arrested Ferrer, the company's CEO, when his plane landed in Houston in October, while Lacey and Larkin later turned themselves in. Bowman in November said he was leaning toward dismissing the charges, but gave California prosecutors more time to make their argument.
Each member of the trio was charged with conspiracy to pimp, while Ferrer faced an additional nine counts of pimping. (Full disclosure: Lacey and Larkin formerly owned Village Voice Media, which owned the Houston Press until 2012.)
The government has a legitimate interest in combating prostitution and other sex crimes, Bowman wrote in his initial decision, but cautioned that that interest cannot encroach upon the First Amendment.
In this case, Bowman concluded that Backpage.com's business model of hosting third-party advertisements, including ads for escort services, was protected speech. Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin also have federal law on their side, the judge noted: The 1996 Communications Decency Act protects publishers from being held liable for content posted by third parties.
"In short, the victimization resulted from the third party’s placement of the ad, not because Backpage profited from the ad placement," Bowman wrote.
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California faced a high bar in that the state had to prove first that the escort ads did, in fact, facilitate prostitution. Then, prosecutors would have had to connect the trio to the ads, then prove they knowingly and purposefully made money from a prostitution scheme.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris and her Texas counterpart, Ken Paxton, had heralded the arrests as a major disruption of a sex trafficking organization. Paxton proclaimed that "making money off the backs of innocent human beings by allowing them to be exploited for modern-day slavery is not acceptable in Texas," while Harris asserted 99 percent of Backpage.com's revenue comes from ads for prostitutes.
A spokeswoman for Paxton said the AG noted that a Texas investigation into Backpage.com is ongoing and independent of California's probe.
Correction, December 12, 2:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated that Lacey and Larkin remained at large.