Taking Legal Action Against Atlanta’s Multi-Million Dollar Sex Trafficking Industry

A WINNING FORMULA.

MILLIONS RECOVERED. FIERCELY DEVOTED. JUSTICE SECURED.

Sex trafficking, defined as the use of force, deception, or other forms of coercion to induce a person to perform sexual activities for the profit of someone else, is a horribly damaging and dehumanizing practice. It’s also Atlanta’s most profitable illegal industry, valued at an estimated $290 million as of 2017, more than the illegal drug and weapon industries combined.

As far as what that means on a human level, the Center for Public Policy Studies (CPPS) estimates that, in Georgia, approximately 7,200 men per month purchase sex with trafficked underage girls.

That number is from 2012, and it doesn’t account for trafficked adult women, men, or boys, or for female customers. Georgia’s sex trafficking industry expanded over the following five years, meaning that by 2017, the problem was even worse than that figure suggests.

Atlanta accounts for about 65% of Georgia’s underage female sex trade, and the area immediately surrounding Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport accounts for 9%, according to the CPPS. The airport may also be a contributing factor in the rest of the city’s high numbers, though not primarily for the reasons people expect.

The concept of sex trafficking is often associated with moving girls and women from one country to another for exploitation. That is part of the problem in Atlanta, with some victims being moved both into and out of the U.S, but many of the victims are also locals who are exploited repeatedly just miles from where they grew up. Those with a difficult home life and children in the foster system are often common targets.

It may be that the infrastructure and amenities surrounding the airport, the perceived anonymity of its crowds, and the abundance of hotels simply create a convenient environment for forced prostitution.

Online Platforms that Facilitate Sex Trafficking Have Long Enjoyed Immunity from Prosecution and Civil Suits

Human trafficking is illegal internationally, federally, and at the state level. The United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons requires that countries not only maintain and enforce anti-trafficking laws, but also provide resources to help victims assert their rights, begin their mental, physical, and financial recovery, and return home if they have been transported across international borders.

The U.S’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act funds and authorizes the Department of Justice to do exactly this, and here in Georgia, sex trafficking of a minor carries a sentence of 25 years to life, with a fine of up to $100,000.

These laws have often gone unenforced, however, in part because of 47 U.S Code 230, which prevents social media platforms from being held legally responsible for the posts of their users. Code 230 was intended to protect free expression online, by allowing spaces to exist in which users could interact and produce content at a rate not limited by the platform owner’s ability to police each post individually and proactively. Unfortunately, as sex trafficking — like most industries —moved online, Code 230 ended up becoming a dangerous loophole in U.S sex trafficking law. Web-based companies were able profit knowingly and systematically off of sex trafficking, sometimes as their sole or primary source of revenue, with no repercussions.

As of early 2018, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that nearly three-quarters of the cases submitted to them could be connected to posts on Backpage, a then-giant of “adult ads.” By that time, at least three women had tried without success to sue the site for its participation in their forced prostitution. In spite of the 2008 amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which clarified that anyone knowingly profiting off of human trafficking could be subject to the same penalties as a trafficker, the U.S Court of Appeals chose to prioritize Code 230 immunity over anti-trafficking law.  This effectively gave Backpage.com immunity for its actions.

The Shutdown of Backpage Marks a New Era of Accountability for Sex Traffickers

The tide of online sex trafficking began to shift in April of 2018, when the FBI seized Backpage and shut it down, raiding the Arizona homes of its two co-founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin. Lacey was subsequently indicted on 93 counts, though the exact nature of the charges was not made public.

Five days after the Backpage shutdown, Congress passed the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017,” often referred to as SESTA/FOSTA. This legislation states that Code 230 does not exempt the owners of online platforms from sex trafficking law.  That said, and while untested in Court, it is generally believed that SESTA/FOSTA cannot apply retroactively, and instead, only applies from Backpage.com actions from 2017 forward.  In response to SESTA/FOSTA, several websites with similar business models shut down voluntarily and/or removed sections of their sites devoted to “adult advertisements.”

The next day, Backpage’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, pled guilty to three counts of money laundering and one count of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. He also promised to cooperate with the investigation into the two founders.

As part of the testimony from his plea deal, Ferrer explained to the FBI that Backpage.com would actually alter content / provide suggestions to those seeking to publish sex work for underage girls such that the advertisements would not appear to be involving girls that are under the age of eighteen.  This admission may be useful in bringing lawsuits against Backpage.com because the Code 230 immunity would likely not apply to an advertisement that Backpage.com altered or help create.

Everyone deserves to be protected from sexual exploitation and violence, and it’s clear that the law remains far from perfect for that purpose. However, while the side effects need further examination, SESTA/FOSTA does help address the Code 230 loophole from 2017 forward and the admissions from Ferrer provide a potential avenue to bring lawsuits against Backpage.com for pre-2017 conduct.  It is now finally possible to pursue meaningful legal action against internet-based companies that have profited / continue to profit from sex trafficking. If you’ve been subjected to this kind of exploitation, now is the ideal time to act.

Civil Suits Are Most Effective When Directed Toward Defendants with Verifiable Assets

Although Code 230 immunity is no longer the airtight defense it once was, companies like Backpage.com may have another unfortunate defense against paying fair compensation: insolvency. No matter how valid a case is, collecting money from a bankrupt or defunct company is extremely difficult. Given Ferrer’s guilty plea to money laundering, the profit Backpage made by facilitating sex trafficking may already have been siphoned out of the company in difficult-to-trace ways. That said, for the time being, it does appear that Backpage.com has some assets that could potentially be attacked with a civil lawsuit.

Individual pimps and other ground-level perpetrators of sex trafficking are also difficult to collect from. A court may rule in the plaintiff’s favor and order the trafficker to pay a certain amount, but if the defendant doesn’t have the money, the ruling doesn’t help the plaintiff. Ideally, sex traffickers should also be facing criminal charges and jail time, which unfortunately make it even harder for them to pay off their debts to their victims.

The Stoddard Firm supports sex trafficking survivors in pursuing legal action against all who have profited from exploiting them. We’re happy to go after previously protected companies like Backpage and will fight for the best possible outcome, but we also encourage our clients to name at least one deserving defendant who will also be able to compensate them.

In most cases, it doesn’t take much searching to find a complicit company that is also solvent.

Hotels and Motels Complicit in Sex Trafficking Were Never Immune to Prosecution or Lawsuits And Are Typically Collectable Defendants.

Knowingly harboring human trafficking is legally the same as actively participating in it. Hotel owners and managers who allow sex traffickers to arrange or carry out transactions on their property — or even house victims in a temporary holding capacity — can be prosecuted with felony human trafficking and sued for damages in civil court. Because trafficking activities take place on hotels’ physical premises instead of their websites, they are not and have never been included under any Code 230 immunity.

Hotels and motels are often some of the best bets for sex trafficking survivors to obtain a worthwhile settlement. Most are owned by national chains that can easily afford to pay for a survivor’s fresh start, medical care, and compensation for their trauma. Though they may not seem like the obvious first choices for a lawsuit, Atlanta’s hotel industry is far from innocent in its sex trafficking problem.

One investigation by Urban Institute into the inner workings of the sex trafficking industry found that it’s a common strategy, both generally and in Atlanta specifically, for traffickers to find out which hotels won’t turn away their business and establish close relationships with them, often through the use of bribes.

While it’s theoretically possible for sex trafficking to take place in a hotel without management’s knowledge, most hotels that host sex trafficking do so intentionally, systematically profiting off of this massive criminal enterprise.

Collecting compensation from hotels not only gives survivors the best chance of a better life, it also reduces the profitability of harboring sex trafficking, forcing corrupt hotels to close or change. This in turn makes it more difficult for traffickers to take advantage of new victims in the future.

Sex Trafficking Survivors Can Often Sue Without Revealing Their Name In Public

Coming forward as a survivor of any form of sex crime is stressful, and when large amounts of money depend on keeping victims silent, speaking up can also be dangerous. This, by design, is why so many sex trafficking survivors never get the help or compensation they need, or even accurate reflection in official statistics.

Fortunately, ever since Doe v. Stegall in 1981, plaintiffs in certain kinds of cases can request to proceed under their initials or a pseudonym, instead of the full name that would normally be required under Rule 10 of the Federal Rules for Civil Procedure.

Common reasons for plaintiffs to be granted anonymity are because the case would require them to reveal extremely intimate information, or because they would have to confess to a crime. Survivors of sex trafficking usually receive approval to proceed anonymously, to maintain their privacy, prevent retaliation, avoid social stigma, and guard against prosecution for anything they have been forced to do while under a sex trafficker’s influence.

A request for anonymity can be filed at the same time as the case itself, or even afterward, and the Stoddard Firm can help with this.

The Stoddard Firm Has the Passion and Expertise to Advocate for Survivors of Sex Trafficking

Nobody should ever be subjected to the horrors of sex trafficking. The Stoddard Firm is committed to putting sex traffickers and all of their enablers out of business, and helping survivors heal and pursue new lives on their own terms. We’re experts in multiple areas of civil law, including civil sexual assault law, personal injury, and premises liability, which allow us to pursue sex trafficking cases from multiple angles, ensuring the best settlement for our clients and, we hope, a sense of justice having been served.

If you have been coerced in any way into performing sexual acts for someone else’s enrichment, or if you have lost a child to the sex trafficking industry in Georgia, contact The Stoddard Firm right away to learn more about how we can help. We’re always available to offer a free, personalized consultation at 678-RESULT or via our online chat function.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Your Top Questions, Answered.

Do I have a case?

If you’ve been injured because of someone else’s negligence, you could have a personal injury case. Every situation is different, so there’s no way to know if you have a case without consulting with a qualified personal injury attorney. If you are badly injured or a loved one has died, we are happy to speak with you and investigate the matter at no charge.

Do I have to go to court?

Not necessarily. Many wrongful death and personal injury cases are settled before they go to court. However, it is our experience that the most successful cases are built as if they are going to court. Our firm prepares every case to go all the way to trial, even if it is ultimately resolved before the trial starts.

What do your services cost?

A consultation with the Stoddard Law Firm is free. In most circumstances, we earn no fee unless we win your case. If your claim is successful, we take a percentage of the recovered amount.

How do I pick the right attorney?

You’ll want to look for several qualities when choosing who will represent you. Your attorney should meet with you instead of sending an investigator, and he/she should be available throughout the process instead of having you consistently talk to a legal assistant. Your attorney should have a low number of cases so he/she can devote significant time to you and your case. Your attorney should have experience handling cases with facts similar to yours, and your attorney should have a proven track record with similar claims. Your attorney should also be able to devote significant money to your case so that he/she can hire experts, travel the country finding witnesses, and depose whomever is necessary to achieve justice. It’s also important to make sure your attorney is the right fit on a personal level, which is why you should take advantage of a free consultation.

How much time do I have to file a lawsuit?

There is a time limit on how long a person has after an injury to begin a lawsuit. This window is called a statute of limitations. For most personal injury cases in Georgia, the statute of limitations is two years from the time the injury was suffered. However, there are exceptions and subtleties that might change the amount of time you are afforded. Sometimes the period can be as short as 6 months, and other times it can be much longer than two years. Determining the statute of limitations requires a detailed analysis of the facts of your case.

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