A five-page opinion from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel has affirmed the findings of a district court judge refusing to dismiss a case against the operators of now-defunct Backpage.com, an classified advertising website purportedly replete with “thinly-veiled prostitution ads.”
The non-precedential decision found that the prosecution did not commit egregious enough witness questioning abuses to warrant granting the defendants’ double-jeopardy motion to dismiss for twice-over prosecution in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
The government’s brief recounted the facts giving rise to the motion filed by defendants Michael Lacey, James Larkin, John Brunst, Scott Spear, Andrew Padilla and Joye Vaught, asking for dismissal. In July 2018, the defendants received a 100-count superseding indictment charging them with violations of federal prostitution and money laundering laws. Among the counts was a 14-year conspiracy to violate the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution.
Trial began in September 2021, but after only two days of a planned three months of testimony, the district court declared a mistrial. In December 2021, the district court denied the defendants’ double-jeopardy motion to dismiss, the subject of the instant appeal.
The Ninth Circuit expedited the dispute, and in this week’s opinion, found that the motion judge correctly denied the defendants’ dismissal bid. The panel declined three arguments aimed at the prosecution, finding instead that the record supported the conclusion that the government had no reason to sabotage its own trial, which was still in its infancy.
The panel also found that though “the government did elicit prejudicial evidence in violation of pretrial rulings, the record also shows that the government generally had good-faith reasons to believe its questions were within the contours of the trial judge’s rulings.” Weighing the severity of the government’s breaches of pretrial orders per impermissible witness questioning, the court said the government “had a cogent reason for doing so.”
The case will now proceed to trial in Phoenix, Ariz.