California Attorney General Kamala Harris can’t let go of Backpage

Coming off a decisive courtroom loss, senator-elect repackages criminal case against online classified portal

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the December 29, 2016, issue.

This is starting to look like a vendetta.

Returning to the scene of a humbling defeat, California Attorney General Kamala Harris last week refiled criminal charges against the captains of an online classified portal she has accused of functioning as a virtual brothel that exploits children.

A Sacramento Superior Court judge already rejected very similar claims from Harris’ office on December 9 against executives Carl Ferrer, Michael Gerard Lacey and James Anthony Larkin. In dismissing all 10 of the state’s criminal conspiracy and pimping charges, Judge Michael Bowman ruled that online publishers like Backpage couldn’t be held criminally liable for the speech or actions of the third parties using their forum, even if they were pimps or human traffickers.

“Congress has spoken on this matter and it is for Congress, not this Court, to revisit,” Bowman concluded in his ruling.

On December 23, just prior to a three-day holiday, Harris’ office issued a release claiming it had uncovered “new evidence” that prompted the filing of 39 new charges—26 counts of money laundering and 13 counts of pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping.

The release didn’t specify what new evidence the attorney general’s office was able to find now, and not during the three-year investigation that preceded the original case. But it did suggest the investigation was still ongoing with a request for trafficking victims to email if they were trafficked via Backpage. A spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions prior to deadline.

Attorneys for the company accused Harris of repackaging old allegations, and say she already acknowledged an inability to pursue a criminal case against Backpage unless the laws governing online publishing companies were changed.

“Attorney General Harris’s latest complaint is a rehash of the charges she asserted before, which the Superior Court promptly dismissed,” Backpage attorney Robert Corn-Revere wrote in a statement. “She cannot avoid First Amendment protections, federal law, or her obligations to follow the law, although her new complaint is a transparent effort to do exactly that.”

Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin have accused Harris of prosecuting them during her campaign for U.S. Senate for political points. Harris handily won election to the 115th Congress in November and will be sworn in on January 3, 2017, eight days before the defendants’ scheduled arraignment. That leaves Harris’ appointed successor, Xavier Becerra, to inherit a once-lost prosecution.