Chicago sheriff wins first round in legal fight over Backpage sex ads

Human Trafficking
by Gaye Clark
Posted 8/31/15, 09:45 am

A Chicago judge last week sided with Sheriff Tom Dart in his fight with the classified website Backpage.com, ruling the outspoken lawman didn’t have to retract statements he made to Visa and MasterCard about the site’s alleged role in sex trafficking.

In issuing his decision, U.S. District Judge John Tharp noted the website’s adult services section “overwhelmingly contains advertisements for prostitution, including the prostitution of minors.”

On June 29, Dart asked the credit card companies to block the use of their cards on the adult section of Backpage.com, because he believed the website promoted sex trafficking. Two days later when the companies complied with his request, Backpage began offering its adult ads free of charge and sued the Chicago Sheriff’s Department. While Tharp initially placed a restraining order on the sheriff and his office, the judge said he did not believe Backpage had enough evidence to convert the temporary order into a permanent injunction. He also noted Dart is entitled to “use of the bully pulpit to educate and even shame” those he believes are aiding, by legal means, illegal activities.

Backpage argued the sheriff’s efforts violated First Amendment protections and eliminated “nearly all revenue” for the site. It also seeks compensation from the sheriff’s department. Tharp will rule on that request next week.

Evidence revealed during the first hearing showed MasterCard had already “taken steps to disaffiliate with Backpage.” Additional statements indicated other companies planned to do likewise well before Dart made his request.

“There is abundant affirmative evidence of voluntary action by the credit card companies to dissociate themselves from Backpage’s seedy offerings,” Tharp said in his ruling.

Dart initially tried to work with Backpage to arrest traffickers but complained the company offered few specifics on how the website monitors ads for trafficking. He then turned his efforts toward the credit card companies.

Dart’s actions remain controversial even within law enforcement, where many say if Backpage goes offline, their most powerful tool in fighting sex trafficking would go with it. Police use the information on Backpage to arrange sting operations and locate missing teens.

“I don’t feel like demonizing them is the appropriate response,” said Sgt. Grant Snyder, the lead detective on the human trafficking team at the Minneapolis Police Department. “I feel like we should be working with them. It helps us recover more victims … sooner.”

Rockingham County (N.H.) Attorney Patricia Conway said Backpage also helps with convictions in court.

“I guess that is the only good thing about how this web site works,” Conway said. “Law enforcement can obtain the records and they are very persuasive to juries in terms of proving the crime.” 

At least one anti-trafficking group, Children of the Night, works with Backpage and has accepted significant donations from the company—almost $700,000.

“There’s no question that kids are going to slip through on some of those ads,” said Lois Lee, director of Children of the Night, a residential program for minors in California. “You have to deal with people that are actually in the mix. None of it is pretty.”

But Dart does not believe the end justifies the means. 

“That’s insane. To be honest with you, I have heard more thoughtful logic out of my 5-year-old,” he said. “They try to spin this thing where they are our biggest asset. … We have never had any problems arresting prostitutes. The difficult part has always been the pimps and the traffickers. … Now you have just set up this wall of anonymity, and somehow you’re helping us? … Here’s how you can help us—stop doing that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gaye Clark

Gaye is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.

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