SACRAMENTO (CN) – A California state judge said Wednesday he’s likely to throw out pimping charges against a trio of Backpage.com executives arrested last month in a joint investigation between Texas and California officials.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman issued a tentative ruling stating that the website is protected by federal free speech laws and therefore not responsible for content posted by its users and other third parties.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris charged Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and two shareholders in October with running a “pimping conspiracy” for allowing escort ads featuring minors on the site.
Following their arrest, the defendants accused Harris of pulling a publicity stunt and pursuing criminal charges against Backpage for political gain.
California voters overwhelmingly elected Harris, a Democrat, to the U.S. Senate last week.
Bowman said Wednesday that the state can’t move forward with pimping charges unless it can prove that Backpage is in fact an information provider, reiterating that other courts have ruled that the federal Communications Decency Act protects the website.
“Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit,” Bowman’s tentative ruling states.
Bowman gave the state until Nov. 28 to file briefings in support of its argument that Backpage is an information provider and liable for a series of online escort advertisements featuring minors. He said the defendants’ demurrer motion appears to be an appropriate “vehicle” for dismissing the pimping charges without a jury trial.
“[Similar] matters have been dismissed time and time again without a jury,” Bowman said, while reassuring the state that he would keep an “absolute open mind” while reading further briefs.
Texas investigators executed a search warrant in October and raided Backpage’s offices in Dallas. It was later revealed that the arrests were the result of a three-year joint investigation between Texas and California officials.
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, applauded the arrests, claiming that the Backpage executives declined to cooperate with a federal investigation.
“As law enforcement officials in Texas and California do their job, we will continue to press forward and complete our longstanding investigation,” the senators said of the October arrests.
After being “paraded” in front of reporters in a Sacramento courtroom later that month, the three men were released on a combined $1 million bond. Ferrer was facing up to 21 years while former shareholders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin faced six years in prison.
The defendants’ attorneys wanted Bowman to throw out Harris’ charges Wednesday and bemoaned the judge’s decision to allow the state to file additional briefings.
“Now we go through another round with the state,” said James Grant, one of the defendants’ attorneys. “They’re going to take another shot at it.”
Bowman said he will rule on the defendants’ demurrer motion by Dec. 9. If he denies it, the sides will appear back in court Dec. 16.