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Carl Ferrer, the embattled CEO of Backpage.com, filed papers Wednesday demanding that a local judge dismiss pimping and other charges that were brought against him.
California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, alleges that advertisements in the online ads portal amounted to solicitation of prostitution.
Ferrer is accused of making millions in profits off the backs of women and children who were forced into sexual servitude and made to advertise their services on the Dallas-based site.
Ferrer said the First Amendment protects him from the charges, that he is not responsible for ads posted by third parties on the website, and that the Communications Decency Act prevents him from being liable for ads posted by third parties.
Attorneys for Ferrer, who was the subject of a three-year joint criminal investigation by authorities in Texas and California, said neither he nor two Backpage controlling shareholders facing conspiracy charges had any “knowledge” of illegal ads.
The lawyers said the trio had not “participated in any way in creation or posting of the speech.”
“The First Amendment bars the prosecution because imposing an obligation on publishers to review all speech to ensure that none is unlawful would severely chill free expression,” the lawyers wrote (PDF).
A hearing on the dismissal motion is set for November 16 in Sacramento County Superior Court.
Ferrer, 55, is charged with pimping a minor, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. He was arrested two weeks ago. He had been in a year-long battle with the US Senate, which voted to hold him in contempt for his refusal to comply with an investigation into online sex trafficking. He had claimed the Web portal enjoyed a First Amendment right not to supply documents to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations about how it reviews third-party ads posted to the site.
The US Supreme Court last month approved the subpoena, but he was arrested before he could comply.
Along the way, in what could be a smoking gun in the prosecution, a Senate investigation concluded that there was “substantial evidence that Backpage edits the content of some ads, including deleting words and images, before publication.
The record indicates that in some cases, these deletions likely served to remove evidence of the illegality of the underlying transaction.”
Harris decried the actions of the trio as “outrageous, despicable, and illegal.”
“Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel,” she said.
Ferror, and controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, have pleaded not guilty.
They founded the site in 2004.
In a letter (PDF) to Harris from their attorneys, the trio said that the state seeks to “impose felony criminal liability” on them solely because the site made $79.60 on the ads connected to the charges.
The court record, meanwhile, quotes kids saying they were forced into prostitution, with their services advertised on the Backpage site. Harris said that nearly all of Backpage’s income was directly attributable to the “adult” section.
Between 2013 to 2015, the site made $51 million in California, Harris said.
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