Crime - Sacto 911 attorneys say criminal charges threaten ‘publisher of free speech’

Attorneys for argued Thursday that state prosecutors have no right to pursue criminal charges against executives behind the site alleged to facilitate sex trafficking, calling the effort a “threat to a publisher of free speech.”

“The state doesn’t have the right to prosecute, but they’re using this to continue their investigation. This process needs to stop,” Backpage attorney James Grant told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown at the afternoon hearing.

For an hour Thursday, the competing sides argued whether the new case should move forward or be dismissed. Brown didn’t rule either way but set a March 10 court date for the parties to return. CEO Carl Ferrer and his partners, former Village Voice and Phoenix New Times owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, face 39 criminal counts of money laundering, pimping, pandering and conspiracy connected to alleged sex trafficking and child sex trafficking on the site brought in January by the California Attorney General’s Office.

Prosecutors allege Backpage raked in millions of dollars by turning the site into an international hub for online sex trafficking and prostitution through its adult services section. They also allege illicit funds from pimps, prostitutes and their clients were laundered through a maze of corporate entities, while the site’s representatives coached customers on how to submit ads soliciting sex without drawing scrutiny and scrubbed words and terms from ads that telegraphed sex trafficking and child sex trafficking.

Backpage’s attorneys said the charges are baseless and amount to punishment of an online publisher for providing content.

“All they did was publish and get paid,” Backpage attorney James Grant said.

Brown quickly rejected Backpage’s request to have Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman hear the new charges and enforce the dismissal order Bowman signed in December.

“I want to disabuse you right now of any notion that this will go back” to Bowman’s courtroom, Brown said. Because of the court reassignments, Brown is the third judge after Superior Court Judge Curtis Fiorini and Bowman to handle the case. “That’s not how things go in this jurisdiction. You’re stuck with Judge Brown.”

Thursday’s hearing came two months to the day after Bowman tossed out prosecutors’ allegations of pimping, pandering and conspiracy against the Backpage team on First Amendment grounds. Bowman ruled in December that Backpage is protected under federal Communications Decency Act statutes that shield third-party content providers from prosecution.

Backpage attorneys in January argued that the Attorney General’s Office violated the judge’s order with its new filing. They also accused prosecutors of harassment and chilling of free-speech rights.

State prosecutors countered in filings that the federal statute is not a defense to money laundering and doesn’t protect internet providers when they develop content.

Brown on Thursday said he was “unpersuaded” that the prosecutors’ new filing violated a court order, saying its allegations of money laundering were substantially different from the ones dismissed in December.

But Grant returned to the federal communications act time and again Thursday, arguing that publishing advertising and receiving payment for the ads doesn’t rise to criminal conduct.

“They have to have underlying knowledge of criminal activity. There’s a distinction from receiving proceeds from prostitution vs. receiving proceeds from the publishing of ads,” Grant said.

State prosecutor Maggy Krell argued that Backpage not only published but developed its content and knew that the cash that flowed into the site came largely from the illegal sex trade.

“The defendants are content creators,” Krell argued. “This case is ready to be proven.”

The hearing came days after two more girls who alleged they were sold for sex on the website filed lawsuits in federal courts in Arizona and Florida.

“The online exploitation of teen girls is the biggest human rights violation of our time. knowingly facilitated this evil and must be held accountable to the harmed girls and to the organizations that provide them services so they can heal and recover,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Carol Robles-Román, in a statement announcing the latest legal action.

The suits were filed in Phoenix and Orlando, Fla., by the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund and Boies Schiller Flexner LLP. The Orlando suit was filed on behalf of a Florida teen who said she was raped as the result of an ad placed on Backpage and on behalf of a center that helps sex-trafficking victims. The Phoenix suit was filed on behalf of another center that works with victims.

Seven girls in six states, including California, have come forward with child-prostitution claims connected to Backpage’s adult-services section. The girls’ charges add to allegations by state attorneys general and a scathing Senate investigative subcommittee’s report that draw lines connecting the website to sex trafficking.

Backpage announced it shut down its adult services section in January on the heels of the Senate report, telling users that its content was unconstitutionally censored by the federal government. But plaintiffs’ attorneys and critics maintain content from the adult section has shifted to the site’s dating section.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith