On Friday there was a big news splash about the Department of Justice coming down hard on Backpage.com executives for their involvement with child sex trafficking. The Backpage.com site was taken down, and there were reports and rumors of seizures, searches, arrests, and a 93-count indictment. We didn’t get to find out much more, because despite all the publicity, the Department of Justice got the court to keep the indictment sealed.
Back on Saturday, however, before the DOJ released the document, I posted a set of very cynical predictions of what would happen, and we can now check a few of them. To start with, my third prediction was
The majority of the counts in the indictment are not actually going to be about child sex trafficking. I think a lot of them will be crimes with what I like to think of as fictitious elements, such as “conspiracy” and “intent.” The prosecution is also going to be about adult consensual sex work and the usual smattering of federal add-on crimes, like money laundering or false statements, maybe with some wildcards like fraud. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the action is around these ancillary crimes rather than the flashy child sex trafficking that prosecutors are claiming they’re fighting.
To analyze this, I prepared a spreadsheet listing all of the defendants and all of the sections of the U.S. code that they are accused of violating, and tallied which defendants were charge with which crimes.
If you’re interested in learning more about the trafficking laws, the Department of Justice website helpfully provides an overview of all sections of the U.S. Code covering Involuntary Servitude, Forced Labor, and Sex Trafficking Statutes Enforced. From that, I prepared this brief summary:
- 18 U.S.C. § 1581 (Peonage)– Makes it unlawful to hold a person in “debt servitude,” or peonage, which is closely related to involuntary servitude.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1584 (Involuntary Servitude) — Makes it unlawful to hold a person in a condition of slavery, that is, a condition of compulsory service or labor against his/her will. Also prohibits compelling a person to work against his/her will by creating a “climate of fear” through the use of force, the threat of force, or the threat of legal coercion.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1589 (Forced Labor) — Makes it unlawful to provide or obtain the labor or services of a person through threat of harm or restraint or abuse of the legal process
- 18 U.S.C. § 1590 (Trafficking) — Makes it unlawful to recruit, harbor, transport, or broker persons for labor or services under conditions which violate any of the offenses contained in a variety of other code sections.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1591 (Sex Trafficking of Children) — Makes it unlawful to cause a person to engage in a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, or if the person is under the age of 18.
- 18 U.S.C. § 1592 (Documents) — Makes it unlawful to seize documents (e.g. immigration papers, even if counterfeit) in order to force others to work.
That is just my non-lawyer summary of the DOJ’s summary of the actual criminal code. If you want to learn more, you could go read the original DOJ summary or spend a few hour poring over the relevant sections in Chapter 77 of the U.S. Code. I’m sure it’s fascinating, if you’re into that sort of thing.
It would also be a complete waste of your time, because the Backpage.com executives weren’t charged with any of those crimes. There’s not a single child sex trafficking charge in the entire indictment. When I predicted that “The majority of the counts in the indictment are not actually going to be about child sex trafficking,” I was apparently nowhere near as cynical as I should have been. The indictment consists entirely of charges of facilitating prostitution, various flavors of money laundering, and conspiracy.
Here’s how it breaks down:
|18 U.S.C § 371||Conspiracy||1||Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Hyer, Padilla, Vaught|
|18 U.S.C § 1952(a)(3)(A)||Travel Act — Facilitate Prostitution||2 – 51||Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Hyer, Padilla, Vaught|
|18 U.S.C. § 1956(h)||Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering||52||Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst, Hyer|
|18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(1)(B)(i)||Concealment Money Laundering||52-62||Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst, Hyer|
|18 U.S.C. § 1956(a)(2)(A)||International Promotional Money Laundering||63-68||Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst, Hyer|
|18 U.S.C. § 1957(a)||Transactional Money Laundering||69-93||Lacey, Larkin, Spear, Brunst (different counts for each)|
Most of the rest of my first five predictions assumed that there would be some child sex trafficking charges and made predictions about those charges. Since there were no such charges at all, I’m tempted to claim victory because nothing in the indictment contradicts my prediction.
The narrative material in the front of the indictment includes a lot of discussion that follows my predictions, but I haven’t read it all yet. I think some of the who-knew-what-when discussions I alluded to will still apply to the charges for adult consensual prostitution.
My remaining predictions will have to wait until the case is resolved.
All in all, however, it seems to be even a bigger steaming pile of bullshit than I predicted.