There are new allegations that underage children were pimped through Backpage.com, leading to 26 counts of money laundering and 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping against the three owners of the company. Seven of those pimping counts include children.
The allegations come a couple weeks after a California judge dismissed earlier pimping charges against Backpage executives Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin on grounds that the sexual material was protected by the free speech provision of the federal Communications Decency Act.
"It's not like a money laundering issue was not known to the (California) attorney general when she lost two weeks ago initially, so I expect the same ruling from the courts," said attorney Gene Nichols, an attorney not affiliated with the case. "These individuals were protected by the First Amendment; they were protected by Congress. When Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, it made it immune to the people who have websites for third-party content at that point in time people became immune to prosecution they became immune to lawsuits."
Prostitution arranged through Backpage.com is an issue nationwide, but also in northeast Florida. In 2014, a Palatka Police Department detective was among 14 arrested in St. Augustine Beach on charges of solicitation of prostitution using Backpage. And in October, six Jacksonville women were arrested on prostitution charges – some of them also using Backpage.
Nichols said it comes down to the language: As long as person posting isn’t saying anything illegal – whether something is insinuated or not -- neither the person nor the company are doing anything illegal by positing it on a website.
Nobody's going to stand up there and admit to you pay me $100 for sex and here's my address because, again, that activity is going to be illegal right off the bat," Nichols said. "So, yes, is everyone talking in code and innuendo of course they are and we all know what they are as long as that third-party content that somebody's putting on your website in it of itself is not illegal then there's nothing you can do."
Nichols said the Communications Decency Act protects all websites, including Twitter, Facebook and Backpage. He said that although the Backpage owners are receiving funds from the advertising, unless they actively participating with posts or creating content, they are not laundering money or committing a crime.
Rethreaded, a Jacksonville nonprofit fighting the effects of the sex trade by giving work to survivors of trafficking, said they support efforts to restrict Backpage.com from posting ads that facilitate prostitution.
"We hope that by bringing to light the criminal activities of Backpage, the public can learn that what is portrayed in the ads on the site is not reflective of what is happening behind the scenes," Rethreaded founder Kristin Keen said. "Force, fraud and coercion are being used to control women through their vulnerabilities. By shifting our attention to what is really driving the industry, we hope that more and more women can have freedom from exploitation."
News4Jax requested the number of prostitution arrests in Jacksonville over the last six months related to Backpage, but have not received the information. The State Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday the arrest of the 51-year-old deputy city manager of Daytona Beach accused of soliciting an undercover deputy for sex using Backpage.