Backpage operators in court on pimping charges

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THE operators of an international website that advertises escort services said Wednesday that they will challenge charges of trafficking prostitutes and pimping on First Amendment grounds. CEO Carl Ferrer, 55, and two others will contest the charges at a hearing next month, defence lawyer Cristina Claypoole Arguedas told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman as the three men made their first brief court appearances.

The complaint and the theory of prosecution is flatly barred by the First Amendment and federal law, Arguedas said outside the courtroom, referring to a federal law that blocks state actions against websites that distribute content created by others.

Ferrer is charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.

The former owners of the Village Voice in New York City, Michael Lacey, 68, and James Larkin, 67, are charged with conspiracy to commit pimping. The Arizona men, who also once owned the Phoenix New Times alternative weekly, are Backpage.coms controlling shareholders, said California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office filed the charges.

The three briefly appeared in a courtroom cage, dressed in orange jail uniforms. A bail hearing was set for Thursday.

The site advertises a wide range of services, but Harris charged that more than 90 per cent 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.

Court documents say affiliated sites including and expanded Backpage.coms share of online sex marketing. By charging for the ads, Harris alleges the three men violated the states law against pimping, defined as making money off prostitutes or soliciting customers for prostitution.

Court documents say some of the ads involve children under the age of 18. Four courts have held theyre protected by the First Amendment. Weve won that issue over and over again, another defence lawyer, Jim Grant, said in an interview.

The three men will make that argument against the California charges at a hearing November 16.

The California complaint alleges that rather than simply being a conduit for ads created by others, Backpage.coms rules and screening process essentially coached advertisers in how to advertise commercial sex.

The Washington state Supreme Court similarly ruled last year that the company didnt just host the ads, but helped develop the content. That ruling allowed a civil lawsuit to continue by three minors who attorneys said were in the seventh and ninth grades when adult professional sex traffickers used Backpage to sell them as prostitutes.

Larkin and Lacey face a maximum of six years if convicted, while the charges against Ferrer could bring him nearly 22 years in prison.

Ferrer was arrested last week after arriving in Houston on a flight from Amsterdam. is a Dutch-owned limited liability corporation. The Dallas headquarters for Backpage was raided by authorities at the same time, and Texas lawyer general added money laundering to the list of alleged crimes.

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