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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — A California judge tentatively rejected pimping charges Wednesday against the operators of a major international website that advertises escort services and was called the “world’s top online brothel” by the state attorney general.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Bowman cited a federal law involving freedom of speech while ruling that the state attorney general’s office cannot continue prosecuting Backpage.com’s CEO Carl Ferrer and former owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin.
Bowman set a hearing later Wednesday before making his decision final.
The men were charged by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who referred to Backpage.com as an online brothel.
The judge, however, said Harris lacked authority to bring the charges because the federal Communications Decency Act, as a way of promoting free speech, grants immunity to website operators for content posted by users.
“Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this court, to revisit,” Bowman wrote in his seven-page tentative ruling, emphasizing the sentence in bold type.
Ferrer, 55, was charged with pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping. Lacey, 68, and Larkin, 67, both from Arizona, were charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Lacey and Larkin are the former owners of the Village Voice in New York City.
Harris, a Democrat who was elected to the U.S. Senate last week, alleged that more than 90 percent of Backpage revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.
That’s not enough for criminal charges against the operators of the site, Bowman decided:
“The victimization resulted from the third party’s placement of the ad, not because (of) Backpage profiting from the ad placement,” he wrote.
Harris spokeswoman Kristin Ford declined immediate comment and said the attorney general’s office will issue a statement after the hearing.
Backpage lawyer Liz McDougall said she and her clients were optimistic and declined further comment until after the hearing.
The company and its operators have previously prevailed in four other legal actions, defense attorneys said previously.
Bowman cited several of those cases in his ruling, including a decision by a federal judge to reject a lawsuit by women who said they were trafficked through ads on Backpage.com beginning at age 15 and that Backpage profited from their victimization.
That dismissal was upheld by a federal appeals court.
The Washington state Supreme Court last year allowed a civil lawsuit by three minors to proceed. Their attorneys said they were in the seventh and ninth grades when professional sex traffickers used Backpage to sell them as prostitutes.
Bowman said in his ruling Wednesday that the California attorney general’s complaint did not include enough allegations to support a similar ruling.
In September, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a subpoena from a U.S. Senate committee seeking information on how Backpage screens the ads for possible sex trafficking. The U.S. Senate voted 96-0 in March to hold the website in contempt for failing to provide the information.
In October, Ferrer was arrested after he arrived in Houston on a flight from Amsterdam.
“We cannot allow this evil to endure,” said Attorney General Paxton about the site, which he said facilitates a “grotesque form of modern day slavery” of both children and adults.
“Backpage.com seems to have knowingly and willingly allowed women and children to be exploited for its own financial gain,” he said.
Texas authorities executed a search warrant at the Dutch company’s headquarters in Oaklawn. The warrant for the company that took in $2.5 million a month, according to Paxton, was based on money laundering.
“It’s disheartening that such organized, deep-seated evil happened in our back yard,” said Paxton at the time.
A lengthy joint investigation by the offices of the Texas and California attorneys general uncovered evidence that adult and child sex trafficking victims were forced into prostitution through escort ads that appeared repeatedly on Backpage.com.
And the profits were staggering.
Documents show Backpage.com took in $50 million in ads between 2013 and 2015.
Paxton said investigators repeatedly warned the website about the alleged illegal activities, but that the company continued to allow the ads.
In March 2016, the United States Senate voted to hold Ferrer in contempt of congress after he failed to appear at a hearing about online sex trafficking.
“Making money off the backs of innocent human beings by allowing them to be exploited for modern-day slavery is not acceptable in Texas,” Paxton said. “I intend to use every resource my office has to make sure those who profit from the exploitation and trafficking of persons are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Every major credit card company has reportedly cut ties with the website and the state is in the process of shutting it down.
The only way customers can pay online is with Bitcoin or by mailing a check.
(©2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)