Senate bill would fight sex traffic

Bill would penalize pimps an additional $5,000 for Web ads featuring minors

Staff writerFebruary 16, 2013 

Last year, state lawmakers went after Internet ads that promote sex with minors, and they got sued.

This year, they again are fighting underage sex trafficking on sites such as Backpage.com, but are trying to avoid another lawsuit by focusing on the pimps instead of the websites they use.

A proposal in the state Senate would impose an additional $5,000 fee on anyone convicted of using an Internet ad to sell minors for sex. That mandatory fine would be in addition to penalties already associated with commercial sexual abuse of a minor and promoting commercial sexual abuse of a minor, both felonies.

Backers hope Senate Bill 5488 will dodge some of the legal issues that landed the state in court last year.

Last year’s bill, which passed unanimously, would have allowed the state to prosecute anyone who knowingly published sex ads involving children, and would have required classified ad sites such as Backpage.com to verify the ages of advertised escorts.

Before the 2012 law could go into effect, Backpage.com sued the state, saying the legislation conflicted with federal laws that prevent online service providers from being held liable for what their users post.

A U.S. District Court judge granted Backpage.com’s request for an injunction in July 2012, and the state Attorney General’s office later settled with the website, saying an appeal would be too costly.

Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, has signed on to this year’s bill, saying he believes the new approach is constitutional because it merely increases the penalty for an offense already on the books.

“Isn’t it fair to say the prospects for this are actually very good?” Kline asked Wednesday during a hearing on the bill before the Senate Law & Justice Committee. “There’s no doubt that the state Legislature has the authority, under any understanding of the constitution, to increase a fine payable upon conviction.”

It’s impossible to predict what the courts would think about the proposed legislation, but the new bill does sidestep some issues that plagued last year’s law, said Lana Weinmann, a senior assistant attorney general who defended Washington in last year’s lawsuit.

“I don’t think this bill necessarily suffers from the same infirmities,” Weinmann said during Wednesday’s bill hearing.” The distinction between last year’s bill and this one is the speech that it reaches. ... There were other issues with last year’s one that don’t come into play here.”

While this year’s bill would repeal the law the Legislature passed last year – a condition of the state’s settlement with Backpage.com – it still would help address the issue of girls and boys being marketed online, said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who introduced the legislation.

“These youth are still very nave about the world,” said Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. “We too frequently find they are ones that are very vulnerable, perhaps ones that have run away from home, and they are recruited into prostitution at a very young age.”

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