ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A website that authorities say two aging professors used to run a multistate prostitution ring is legal, a state judge has ruled, highlighting the difficulties that prosecutors face in using decades-old laws to combat a modern phenomenon.
The ruling comes as prosecutors were scheduled to present to a grand jury their case against former University of New Mexico President F. Chris Garcia, who is accused of helping a physics professor from New Jersey oversee a prostitution website called "Southwest Companions."
State District Judge Stan Whitaker ruled that the website, an online message board and Garcia's computer account did not constitute a "house of prostitution," the Albuquerque Journal reported.
Whitaker also said the website wasn't "a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed."
The ruling means that prosecutors will now have to decide how to proceed with a case involving Garcia, retired Fairleigh Dickinson University physics professor David C. Flory and others.
They were arrested last June on a criminal complaint charging them with promoting prostitution. Flory, a retired physics professor at the New Jersey school and has a home in Santa Fe, is accused of buying the site in 2009.
Garcia's attorney, Robert Gorence, said Garcia was satisfied with the judge's decision and felt vindicated. A woman who answered the phone at Flory's Santa Fe residence said he had no comment.
Investigators said the prostitution ring had a membership of 14,000, including 200 prostitutes. Members paid anywhere from $200 for a sex act to $1,000 for a full hour. Prostitutes were paid with cash, not through the website, according to police.
But the ruling also showed the difficulty that prosecutors have in trying prosecute owners of websites that promote or facilitate prostitution because of laws created long before the Internet age, experts say.
"Most state laws only address street walkers and brothels and are so narrowly written that it's hard to prosecute these new cases," said Scott Cunningham, a Baylor University economics professor who has written about technology and prostitution.
For example, Cunningham said, Craigslist withstood lawsuits and challenges by law enforcement agencies and district attorneys' offices to shut down its erotic services section and only closed them later for publicity reason.
To change laws, Cunningham said, some states will have to pass laws that outline step-by-step regulations on websites.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Drebing said prosecutors' options are limited because New Mexico has laws on the books for computer fraud and use of computers and the Internet for child pornography, but none geared toward prostitution.
Drebing said no decisions have been made about how prosecutors intend to move forward with their case.
Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras.