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November 16, 2016

Pimping Charges To Be Dismissed Against Backpage CEO Ferrer

SACRAMENTO—A California Superior Court judge has announced his intention to dismiss pimping charges that had been filed against Carl Ferrer, CEO of Backpage.com. Judge Michael Bowman informed attorneys for the prosecution and defense today that his interpretation of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which was signed into law in 1996, bars the state of California from continuing to prosecute Ferrer on charges of pimping, pimping a minor, and conspiracy to commit pimping, for which Ferrer had been arrested in October, along with the company's former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, both of whom faced some of the same charges. The arrests had been ordered by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, with warrants executed in Texas and Arizona. "The victimization resulted from the third party's placement of the ad, not because [of] Backpage profiting from the ad placement," Judge Bowman wrote in a preliminary ruling. "Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit." [Emphasis in original] The judge is expected to deliver his final ruling later today, but is not expected to vary much if at all from his current stance. Harris, in what may have been an attempt to bolster her candidacy for U.S. Senate, a seat she won in this month's election—indeed, both Lacey and Larkin had issued a statement calling the arrests a "publicity stunt"—had stated, according to Don Thompson of the Associated Press, 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," and that therefore, Ferrer and his co-defendants were responsible for any illegal activities that occurred as a result of the ads. Harris had referenced nine unnamed minors who had allegedly been pimped out for sex in her arrest warrants. "Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world's top online brothel," said Harris in a statement. However, Ferrer's attorneys, including First Amendment expert Robert Corn-Revere, had argued that the CDA shields website owners from liability for material posted by third parties, which is the situation with all of the adult-oriented ads that appear on Backpage.com. "The only evidence presented in the papers suggest that Backpage was doing what it was supposed to be doing," said Corn-Revere. However, Ferrer is not completely out of the woods yet. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, "Two other cases, in Massachusetts and in Washington State, allege that Backpage is a co-conspirator in an illegal prostitution business. In the Massachusetts case, the plaintiffs were held hostage by traffickers and raped as many as 12 times a day by men who responded to ads on Backpage.com, according to court documents." Ferrer also remains a target of congressional hearings looking into online sites featuring advertising for adult services—hearings that are likely to intensify under the incoming Republican administration.

 
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