California judge rejects charges involving major escort site

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California judge tentatively rejected pimping charges Wednesday against the operators of a major international website that advertises escort services and was called the "world's top online brothel" by the state attorney general. But he gave both sides more time to submit briefs before issuing a final ruling next month.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman cited a federal law involving freedom of speech while ruling that the state attorney general's office cannot continue prosecuting's CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin.

At a hearing later Wednesday, the judge declined to make his ruling final, instead giving both parties more time to argue their positions. Bowman said he would issue a ruling by Dec. 9.

The men were charged by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who referred to as an online brothel.

The judge, however, said Harris lacked authority to bring the charges because the federal Communications Decency Act, as a way of promoting free speech, grants immunity to website operators for content posted by users.

"Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit," Bowman wrote in his seven-page tentative ruling, emphasizing the sentence in bold type.

The section of the Communications Decency Act that applies to the case protects websites from content posted by third parties, said David Greene, civil liberties director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It immunizes sites such as from being held accountable for scathing reviews left by customers or online news sites from vicious reader comments.

Without it, platforms for exchanging ideas or information wouldn't have an incentive to exist, he said.

"Our interest isn't Backpage per se, it's preserving the structure of the internet where people can freely post information because these intermediary platforms exist," Greene said.

Ferrer, 55, was charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. Lacey, 68, and Larkin, 67, both from Arizona, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.

Ferrer was arrested Oct. 6 at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, having arrived from Amsterdam after his Dallas headquarters was raided.

Lacey and Larkin are the former owners of the Village Voice alternative newspaper in New York City.

Harris, a Democrat who was elected to the U.S. Senate last week, alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.

That's not enough for criminal charges against the operators of the site, Bowman decided.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said he was confused when the charges were filed because Harris was one of 47 state attorneys general who asked Congress in 2013 to help change a provision of the Communications Decency Act that they acknowledged protected Backpage from prosecution.

Goldman said he wondered how Harris, who has a reputation for being overly cautious, had brought a case her office knew was pre-empted by the law.

"Why bring this crazy legal theory if they're proceeding so cautiously and then have it go nowhere?" Goldman said. "If the prosecution failed so early and so convincingly, it would be a pretty stinging rebuke of the attorney general's office."

Backpage lawyer Liz McDougall said she and her clients were optimistic before the hearing, but she did not immediately respond to a telephone message after the hearing.

Harris spokeswoman Kristin Ford declined to comment.

The company and its operators have previously prevailed in four other legal actions, defense attorneys said previously.

Bowman cited several of those cases in his ruling, including a decision by a federal judge to reject a lawsuit by women who said they were trafficked through ads on beginning at age 15 and that Backpage profited from their victimization.

That dismissal was upheld by a federal appeals court.

The Washington state Supreme Court last year allowed a civil lawsuit by three minors to proceed. Their attorneys said they were in the seventh and ninth grades when professional sex traffickers used Backpage to sell them as prostitutes.

Bowman said in his ruling Wednesday that the California attorney general's complaint did not include enough allegations to support a similar ruling.

In September, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a subpoena from a U.S. Senate committee seeking information on how Backpage screens the ads for possible sex trafficking. The U.S. Senate voted 96-0 in March to hold the website in contempt for failing to provide the information.


Associated Press writers Brian Melley in Los Angeles and Juliet Williams in Sacramento also contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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