Attorneys for the three Backpage.com executives facing pimping and conspiracy charges in Sacramento Superior Court called for criminal charges to be dismissed in motions filed Wednesday in Sacramento arguing the charges are barred by the First Amendment and that California prosecutors have no legal basis to pursue the case under federal law.
“The State should dismiss this complaint and all charges. … We write now to urge that this happen immediately,” James C. Grant, an attorney at the Seattle firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, wrote in a letter to California Attorney General Kamala Harris dated Monday, but released by the firm Wednesday, saying “the state’s actions to date raise serious questions” compounded by the “continued pursuit of meritless criminal charges.”
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer faces 10 charges connected to allegations by California attorney general’s prosecutors that he used Backpage.com to run a multi-million dollar sex trafficking and prostitution ring, profiting from advertising in its “adult services section.”
Attorney general’s officials in a statement announcing Ferrer’s arrest allege nearly all of Backpage.com’s worldwide income could be tied to its adult section and that more than $51 million in revenue from January 2013 to March 2015 came from California.
Harris alleged in the statement the three conspired to create “the world’s top online brothel.”
Meanwhile, partners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, former owners of the Village Voice and the Phoenix New Times, face conspiracy charges.
All are free on bail. Attorneys for the website’s executives will argue their motion Nov. 16 in Sacramento Superior Court.
In a joint statement released Wednesday, Lacey and Larkin say Harris had no legal authority to bring the complaint and suggested their arrests were politically motivated with an election a month away.
“Harris will be warmly ensconced in the United States Senate by the time her blatant violations of the First Amendment and federal law are finally adjudicated,” the statement read. “She won’t pay. The taxpayers of California will.”
A three-year investigation by California and Texas attorney general’s offices led to Ferrer’s arrest at a Houston airport this month upon touching down from a flight from Amsterdam and the raiding of the website’s Dallas offices by authorities. Lacey and Larkin were later arrested. The three were then turned over to California authorities.
Attorneys argue that Ferrer as an online publisher cannot be held criminally liable under the First Amendment for publishing third-party content and denied that Backpage.com knew about the nine people who posted the ads that became the basis for the criminal charges.
“The (attorney general’s) complaint and theory of prosecution are frankly outrageous,” attorneys state in the motion.
Attorneys also said Ferrer and his partners were protected by a section of the Communications Decency Act which they argued grant immunity to “interactive computer services” from liability for publishing or failing to remove content regardless of whether the website knew or should have known the content was illegal.