SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The operators of an international website that advertises escort services asked a California judge Wednesday to throw out charges against them of pimping and trafficking prostitutes.
Attorneys for Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin say the website is protected by the First Amendment and federal law. The men were charged in Sacramento County Superior Court by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
"The AG's complaint should be dismissed immediately," wrote James C. Grant, a Seattle-based attorney representing the three men. "The charges the state asserts amount to a brazen effort to intimidate or shut down an online publisher by using all the criminal sanctions at the AG's disposal, despite that she has no authority whatsoever to do so."
Backpage 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.
Ferrer, 55, is charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. Lacey, 68, and Larkin, 67, both from Arizona, are charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Lawyers for the men say the federal Communications Decency Act grants immunity to website operators for content posted by users in order to promote free speech. They also say the state presented no evidence that the defendants knew anything about the nine ads cited in charging documents.
In a separate statement to the media, Lacey and Larkin claim that state Harris is pursuing a specious case to assist her U.S. Senate campaign.
"Harris will be warmly ensconced in the United States Senate by the time her blatant violations of the First Amendment and federal law are finally adjudicated," they wrote. "She won't pay. The taxpayers of California will. And, as Kamala Harris knows, it probably won't even make the evening news."
A spokeswoman for Harris, Kristin Ford, said the issues will be litigated in court and repeated Harris' earlier public statement.
"Raking in millions of dollars from the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable victims is outrageous, despicable and illegal," Harris said when she announced the charges Oct. 6. "Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world's top online brothel."