For years, websites such as Backpage.com and Craigslist.com have been attractive arenas for law enforcement agents to conduct sting operations looking for both prostitutes and for johns (solicitors of prostitution.) It is not uncommon for police officers to call ads off of Backpage.com or Craigslist.com to find and arrest prostitutes or to set up fake ads to arrest the johns who show up. These tactics are similar to those used by police officers who use apps like Kik, Snapchat, and Whisper to set up stings that lead to arrests for online solicitation.
DFW has long been established as a corporate headquarter hotspot for household name businesses such as Walmart, Exxon Mobile Corp, and AT&T. Also rooted in DFW are more provocative businesses, including backpage.com, which burst into the forefront making global headlines after law enforcement officers raided the tech company’s headquarters in Dallas. While such businesses are often riddled with accusations of white collar crimes, Carl Ferrer, CEO of Backpage.com, has been confronted for his alleged involvement in a whole different world – pimping.
At first glance, Backpage.com appears to be similar to any other classifieds-based website. It advertises itself as a free medium for individuals to post ads for services, goods, living arrangements, and the like. Digging a little deeper into the whisperings of the interweb, you’ll realize that Backpage.com offers much more than innocent exchanges, with allegations of prostitution, human trafficking, and now, with this latest arrest – pimping. Similar sites recognized these dangers long ago.
Craigslist shut down its adult services section in 2010, which had led to escorts and prostitutes listings moving to personal ads and theraputic service ads. While the change also resulted in many listings moving to Backpage.com, law enforcement still checks sites like Craigslist.com to seek out opportunities to stem prostitution.
When dealing with prostitution-based cases in Texas, there is usually any combination of three main players – johns, prostitutes, and pimps. “John” is a slang term that has emerged to describe any individual who solicits sexual services. Johns “hire” prostitutes, individuals who provide, or offer to provide, sexual services to the john’s for payment. Leading the prostitutes are pimps – the so-called ringleaders in the prostitution world. They often control a prostitute’s actions, coordinate with johns, and profit off of the proceeds acquired by the prostitute. In most cases, a pimp controls multiple prostitutes at any given time. If discovered by authorities, johns, prostitutes, and pimps are all criminally liable for their actions.
Prostitution is addressed in Section 43.02 of the Texas Penal Code. Prostitution charges can arise from sex acts in exchange for money or an agreement for sex acts in exchange of money. Many people are under the misimpression that officers cannot lie to you, or believe there must be an actual sex act to face prostitution charges in Texas. Neither are true. Similarly, many prostitutes believe if the john exposes himself prior to making an agreement, that excludes the possibility that the john is an undercover law enforcement agent. This is also untrue, and it is common for undercover officers to carry devices used to deceive prostitutes that may ask this question. Finally, an actual exchange of money is not required to complete the offense.
This means that any player in the prostitution game, whether as the john or the prostitute, can find themselves criminally liable regardless of paying any fees or performing any acts. The solicitation of prostitution, which in today’s day and age is often online, is all it takes for criminal culpability in Texas.
The penalty for a prostitution charge varies greatly depending on the circumstances and criminal history of the actor. For example, generally, a prostitution offense is a Class B misdemeanor carrying a punishment of up to 180 days in a county jail and up to a $2000 fine. However, the punishment increases if an actor has been previously convicted for prostitution. One to two prior convictions raise the penalty to a Class A misdemeanor carrying a punishment of up to a year in a county jail and a fine of up to $4000. Three or more previous convictions enhances the punishment to a state jail felony, which carries a six-month to two-year sentence in a state jail and up to a $10,000 fine. If the person solicited is younger than 18 years of age, regardless of whether the actor knew the age at the time the actor committed the offense, represented to the actor as being younger than 18 years of age, or believed by the actor to be younger than 18 years of age, the offense becomes a second degree felony, subjecting an offender to two to twenty years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Recently in North Texas, authorities have been cracking down on online solicitation of minors. Just last month, eight individuals were arrested for charges including solicitation of a minor and prostitution in Fort Worth. In an undercover operation, officers posed as a 13- year old female on various online websites. In just three days, on eight separate occasions, individuals made plans to meet with the ‘young teen’ at a Fort Worth residence for a sexual encounter. One individual offered $50 to the fictional teen in exchange for sexual favors. Upon arrival, the individuals, whose ages ranged from 21 to 55, were met by officers and apprehended. This sting illustrates how the actual exchanging of sexual favors never has to happen to face criminal charges in Texas.
Furthermore, with the ever-evolving world of online communication, prostitution, which Rudyard Kipling deemed the oldest profession in the world, does not appear to be decreasing any time soon. In fact, officials expect a growth in local prostitution. Special Crimes Unit Commander Adam King of Johnson County spoke on the issue last year after posing as a john in a sting that led to the arrest of 14 individuals on prostitution charges. When asked about local prostitution, he noted that with the addition of Chisholm Trail Parkway, “he wouldn’t be surprised to see more homegrown prostitution.”
What is commonly referred to as ‘pimping,’ is legally labeled ‘promotion’ in Texas. Under the Texas Penal Code, a person who engages in promotion could face any or all of three statutes. The less serious offense is found in Section 43.03 – Promotion of Prostitution – where a person commits an offense if, acting other than as a prostitute receiving compensation for personally rendered prostitution services, he or she knowingly:(1) receives money or other property pursuant to an agreement to participate in the proceeds of prostitution; or (2) solicits another to engage in sexual conduct with another person for compensation.
A more serious promotion offense is Aggravated Promotion of Prostitution which is defined in Section 43.04 of the Texas Penal Code. Here, a person commits an offense if he knowingly owns, invests in, finances, controls, supervises, or manages a prostitution enterprise that uses two or more prostitutes. Aggravated Promotion of Prostitution is generally a third-degree felony, meaning an offender faces two to ten years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000. Making matters even more serious is when the ‘prostitution enterprise’ uses one or more minors (persons under the age of 18) as a prostitute, regardless of whether the actor knows the age of the person at the time the actor commits the offense. In these cases, an offender is charged with a first-degree felony and could face between five to ninety-nine years’ imprisonment, up to a $10,000 fine, or, in the most heinous of cases – life in prison.
Lastly, the Texas Penal Code addresses the crime of Compelling Prostitution in Section 43.05. Here, A person commits an offense if the person knowingly: (1) causes another by force, threat, or fraud to commit prostitution; or (2) causes by any means a child younger than 18 years to commit prostitution, regardless of whether the actor knows the age of the child at the time the actor commits the offense. This section is unique in that it can be charged independently, or along with any other charge in Section 43. So, if an individual acts meet the components of both Aggravated Promotion of Prostitution and Compelling Prostitution, the individual may face charges of both, which could result in a much harsher punishment.
A simple internet search shows that these charges are prevalent in Texas. Last year in San Antonio, Steven Sumlin was arrested for aggravated promotion of prostitution. Authorities alleged that Sumlin was responsible for forcing nearly 30 women into prostitution. Sumlin would target college-age women across Texas and lure them from their college campuses and through internet ads. Officers stated that once the women began working, Sumlin would use intimidation to keep them working.
The issue extends from a state issue into the federal system as well. In July, Dallas News reported a Fort Worth pimp who recruited an underage girl on Facebook by sending her a friend request and encouraging her to run away from home. Henry David Jackson, who referred to himself as “King Mac Hennessy,” referred to his prostitutes as “family” and had them branded with his logo – a royal crown. The underage girl was trained along with another female and the pair placed ads on Backpage. The girl was trained by Hennessey and his ‘team’ and was required to make at least $1000 daily. The girl ultimately escaped Hennessey and led authorities to his home, where he was apprehended on federal charges.
In Texas, trafficking of persons is defined in Section 20A.02 of the Texas Penal Code. Subsection (3) and (4) address the type of issues Backpage.com executives may find themselves facing. Subsection (3) and (4) define the offense as any person who traffics another person and, through force, fraud, or coercion, causes the trafficked person to engage in conduct prohibited by: (A) Section 43.02 – Prostitution; (B) Section 43.03 – Promotion of Prostitution; (C) Section 43.04 – Aggravated Promotion of Prostitution; or (D) Section 43.05 Compelling Prostitution; or (4) receives a benefit from participating in a venture that involves an activity described by Subdivision (3) or engages in sexual conduct with a person trafficked in the manner described in Subdivision (3).
Trafficking is, unfortunately, prevalent in Texas, ranking second nationally in human trafficking cases reported. The overwhelming majority of those cases are sex trafficking cases. According to Dawn Hawkins, executive director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, Backpage posts one million sex ads a day. In Dallas, Martavious Detrel Banks Keys is facing federal child sex trafficking charges after “buying” two teenage girls, aged 14 and 15, to work as prostitutes. The girls had gone to a different male’s apartment, taken methamphetamine, had sex with the man and his friend. A few days later, they were sold to Keys in a parking lot. The youngest was sold for $47. A Homeland Security Investigation uncovered that “Keys posted sex ads on Backpage.com and forced the girls to have sex with “johns” at area motels.”
Despite the prevalent use of Backpage.com by traffickers, Backpage.com executives are only facing pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping charges at this point in the investigation. Nonetheless, the initial grounds for the backpage bust were rooted in allegations of child sex trafficking in reports from the Nation Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Although no trafficking charges have been announced at this time this article was written, the attorney general commented that the investigation “found that many of the ads for prostitution services involved victims of sex trafficking, including children under the age of 18.” This revelation begs the question of whether trafficking charges will follow as the investigation continues. No word yet, on whether the activities will give rise to federal human trafficking charges.
Update: In April 2018, Backpage.com pleaded guilty to human trafficking in Texas and its CEO Carl Ferrer pleased guilty in state courts in California and Texas and federal court in Arizona to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. The Department of Justice has also shut down the website.
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