Operators of Backpage.com appear in court on pimping charges

This photo released by the Texas Office of the Attorney General shows Carl Ferrer. State agents have raided the Dallas headquarters of adult classified ad portal Backpage and arrested Chief Executive Officer Ferrer. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton alleges that adult and child sex-trafficking victims had been forced into prostitution through escort ads posted on the site. Paxton announced that Ferrer had been arrested Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, on a California warrant after arriving in Houston on a flight from Amsterdam. (Texas Office of the Attorney General via AP)

SACRAMENTO, CA (AP) – The operators of an international website that advertises escort services said Wednesday that they will challenge charges of trafficking prostitutes and pimping on First Amendment grounds.

Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, 55, and two others will contest the charges at a hearing next month, defense attorney Cristina Claypoole Arguedas told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman as the three men made their first brief court appearances.

“The complaint and the theory of prosecution is flatly barred by the First Amendment and federal law,” Arguedas said outside the courtroom, referring to a federal law that blocks state actions against websites that distribute content created by others.

Ferrer is charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.

The former owners of the Village Voice in New York City, Michael Lacey, 68, and James Larkin, 67, are charged with conspiracy to commit pimping. The Arizona men, who also once owned the Phoenix New Times alternative weekly, are Backpage.com’s controlling shareholders, said California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office filed the charges.

The three briefly appeared in a courtroom cage, dressed in orange jail uniforms. A bail hearing was set for Thursday.

The site advertises a wide range of services, but Harris charged that more than 90 percent of its revenue – amounting to millions of dollars each month – comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money. Court documents say affiliated sites including EvilEmpire.com and BigCity.com expanded Backpage.com’s share of online sex marketing.

By charging for the ads, Harris alleges the three men violated the state’s law against pimping, defined as making money off prostitutes or soliciting customers for prostitution. Court documents say some of the ads involve children under the age of 18.

“Four courts have held they’re protected by the First Amendment. We’ve won that issue over and over again,” another defense attorney, Jim Grant, said in an interview.

The three men will make that argument against the California charges at a hearing Nov. 16.

The California complaint alleges that rather than simply being a conduit for ads created by others, Backpage.com’s rules and screening process essentially coached advertisers in how to advertise commercial sex.

The Washington state Supreme Court similarly ruled last year that the company didn’t just host the ads, but helped develop the content. That ruling allowed a civil lawsuit to continue by three minors who attorneys said were in the seventh and ninth grades when adult professional sex traffickers used Backpage to sell them as prostitutes.

Larkin and Lacey face a maximum of six years if convicted, while the charges against Ferrer could bring him nearly 22 years in prison.

Ferrer was arrested last week after arriving in Houston on a flight from Amsterdam. Backpage.com is a Dutch-owned limited liability corporation. The Dallas headquarters for Backpage was raided by authorities at the same time, and Texas’ attorney general added money laundering to the list of alleged crimes.

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