Crime

Florida lawsuit targets website decried as hub for human trafficking

A photo illustration from an ad on Backpage.com, with its caption superimposed. The caption, which is misspelled, translates from Spanish into “come play with me.”
A photo illustration from an ad on Backpage.com, with its caption superimposed. The caption, which is misspelled, translates from Spanish into “come play with me.” Backpage

A Florida woman and an anti-human trafficking organization are joining the legal campaign targeting Backpage.com, the classifieds website criticized as a hub for illegal prostitution and sex trafficking of underage teens.

The federal lawsuit was filed this week by an unidentified 30-year-old woman who says she was the victim of trafficking through Backpage, and Florida Abolitionist, an Orlando anti-trafficking organization. A second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Sojourner, an Arizona nonprofit victims’ resource organization.

The lawsuits are the latest legal salvos against Backpage and its current and former executives, who are facing criminal charges of money laundering in California over accusations of human trafficking.

“The online exploitation of teen girls is the biggest human rights violation of our time,” said Carol Robles-Román, the president of Legal Momentum, a New York women’s rights nonprofit that helped file the lawsuits.

“Backpage.com knowingly facilitated this evil and must be held accountable to the harmed girls and to the organizations that provide them services so they can heal and recover.”

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In preparing the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Orlando, Legal Momentum consulted with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Human Trafficking Unit, which has made investigating traffickers, and providing services for victims, a priority in recent years.

“I’m delighted the microscope has been focused on Backpage and the internet that has become an instrument for this modern-day slavery,” State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said of the lawsuit.

Backpage’s attorneys could not be reached for comment.

The website has long come under scrutiny from law-enforcement and victims’ groups who say Backage has made millions from prostitution and the trafficking of underage victims forced to sell their bodies through the website.

But there is also much debate within the law-enforcement community on how aggressively to go after Backpage — until recently, the site generally cooperated with police seeking information on traffickers and underage victims, and some fear that the pimps will turn to less visible websites.

In Miami-Dade, just over half of adult victims in recent Miami-Dade human trafficking cases, and 40 percent of minor victims, were advertised on Backpage.com, according to prosecutors.

“Unfortunately, the publicly disseminated sentiments of law enforcement, legislators, and service providers don’t reflect the reality of how Backpage was a critical tool for law enforcement,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an author and criminology professor at George Mason University who serves as an expert witness in human-trafficking cases.

“Backpage advertisements were frequently used as the catalyst for victim rescues and investigations leading to convictions. Going after the website will not reduce the incidence of child sex trafficking. It’s just avoiding the hard decisions for a cheap headline.”

On the heels of a U.S. Senate report that blasted the site for facilitating criminal activity, Backpage last month shut down the “adult” content portion of its website. But the prostitution ads have simply moved to the “dating” section of the site — as chronicled in a Miami Herald article last month.

The Senate investigation determined the site knowingly profited from prostitution and the sexual trafficking of minors, increasing its revenue from $5.3 million in 2008 to $135 million in 2014. The probe also found that the website edited out phrases such as “Lolita” and “Amber Alert” from ads, code words for minors that might attract law-enforcement attention.

The most high-profile case against Backpage was filed last year by California’s Attorney General, who levied pimping-relating charges against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin.

That case got dismissed by a judge. In December, California filed new charges against the men, this time charging them with money laundering. The trial is still pending. In recent months, several other civil lawsuits across the country have been filed and been dismissed after judges agreed with Backpage’s longtime stance — that the site is protected when publishing speech posted by other people.

The plaintiffs in the cases filed this week are hoping for better results.

Named in the court documents are the Backpage executives, as well as two other affiliated websites, according to the lawsuit filed by Legal Momentum and David Boies, of the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner.

The Florida suit alleges that Miami and Tampa have been two of Backpage’s 20 top markets, with the state averaging 2,720 posts per day in the adult section in early January.

In the lawsuit, the woman known only as Jane Doe says she was prostituted out between the ages of 11 and 26, at the direction of her mother and men who sold her drugs.

In March 2013, the woman was locked inside a hotel room and raped by two traffickers, who then advertised her on Backpage, according to the suit. Several men responding to the ads also raped her, the suit alleged.

Now 30, the woman “suffered severe mental and physical trauma” from the rapes and “shame and embarrassment caused by her photograph being featured multiple times on Backpage.” The suit asks for monetary damages for the woman.

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