DOJ Shuts Down Backpage After Congress Passes Sex Trafficking LawApr 10, 2018 by Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes in
On April 6, 2018, visitors to Backpage.com were greeted with a message from the Department of Justice (DOJ) indicating that they had seized the website. Later that day, reports emerged that the federal government had raided the homes of the site’s founders, and charged seven Backpage.com employees with 93 counts of a variety of criminal offenses, including money laundering and facilitating prostitution.
Backpage.com had long been facing accusations of hosting classified ads for prostitution activities supported by human trafficking networks. According to Senator John McCain, whose office released a statement in the wake of the arrests, “the seizure of the malicious sex marketplace Backpage.com marks an important step forward in the fight against human trafficking.”
Did a New Sex Trafficking Law Result in Backpage.com’s Seizure?
In his statement, Senator McCain mentioned a “historic effort in Congress to reform the law that for too long has protected websites like Backpage from being held liable for enabling the sale of young women and children.” He was referring to the recent passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which creates two new criminal offenses:
- Using or operating websites with the intent to promote or facilitate prostitution
- The aggravated felony of recklessly disregarding that the crime contributes to sex trafficking
SESTA also limits the immunity provided to online service providers under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which states that a website cannot be held liable for the words or actions of its users. While this immunity does not extend to federal criminal charges, it was interpreted as protecting websites from criminal charges brought at the state level. SESTA, however, amends Section 230 to allow state attorneys to bring charges against sites such as Backpage.com.
Since President Trump has not signed it, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act is not yet law. So the federal government was not acting under its authority when they closed down Backpage.com.
Another website that has come under fire in recent years, Craigslist.org, voluntarily shut down its personal ads section after the passage of SESTA. Thus, the law has already succeeded in sending a message to websites that allegedly facilitate prostitution. However, the effectiveness of SESTA as a tool for putting sex traffickers and their enablers behind bars is up to debate.
SESTA Could Make Prosecuting Sex Traffickers Harder
In February 2018, The DOJ sent a letter to the House of Representatives urging them to amend the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficker’s Act. According to the letter, SESTA is potentially unconstitutional, and contains vague language that could make a prosecutor’s case harder to prove.
The DOJ acknowledged that websites such as Backpage.com and Craigslist.org facilitate sex trafficking, and that creating new offenses will give prosecutors more options in building their cases. As currently written, however, SESTA’s new offenses could apply to conduct that happened before the law’s signing, which may be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause. Since SESTA would “impose a punishment for an act which was not punishable at the time it was committed,” its constitutionality is in serious question.
Despite these concerns, the House of Representatives rushed to pass SESTA without the suggested amendments, and even avoided debate within the judiciary committee. A legal challenge to SESTA seems inevitable, with groups as varied as the American Civil Liberties Union, Sex Workers Outreach Project, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposing the measure. One common argument against SESTA is that, by pushing prostitution into more obscure corners of the internet, it will be more difficult to unravel sex trafficking networks.
Are You Facing Charges Related to Backpage.com? Call Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
Michael McKneely, Criminal Defense Lawyer is closely following the possible implementation of SESTA and any other legislation that might affect the rights of our clients. If you are under investigation for a sex crime, we can help. Through swift action and aggressive advocacy, we can lead your case to a successful resolution.