Across the country, police are using Backpage.com ads to arrest and convict people for prostitution, solicitation of prostitution, and other sex crime offenses. The plan is simple enough and is being copied by law enforcement agencies from Colorado to out east in Rhode Island.
The set-up is simple enough. Police put an ad on Backpage.com that shows a scantily-clad woman, sometimes taking a selfie in a bathroom mirror, but with her face blurred or in such a way where you can’t see her face.
Backpage.com Prostitution Sting Ad
In addition to the woman’s photograph, the police ad will include sexually suggestive language and an invitation to call and meet. The implication is clear–the ad is about sex or companionship. The Backpage.com ad will also contain a telephone number.
When the customer calls the number, the woman from the photograph will not be the person answering the phone call. Instead, an undercover female police officer will pick up the call and start a conversation. These phone conversations are recorded. That bears repeating: the police record these phone calls and they don’t tell you they are recording–they don’t need your permission to do this.
A meeting is set-up during the phone call and the undercover officer will first set up a meeting in a private location, such as a park or a street intersection. The reason for this procedure is for safety of the officer and to set up a police takedown. In some cases, the meeting is then set-up in a hotel room, where the police are waiting to arrest the “john.”
In conversations with the undercover female officer, the “john” will be asked questions about services and the undercover officer will make sure that this is a negotiation of sex for money. Once there is an agreement about the service, the customer is asked to place money on the table or out in the open while the officer goes into another room or bathroom to change. At this point, the police arrive and arrest the john. If this happens in a hotel room, expect that there are cameras already placed somewhere in the room that have recorded the entire transaction.
Similar stings have been done in Providence, Rhode Island where on May 5, 2015, thirteen men were arrested as a part of “Operation Backpage.” In response to the sing, the Providence Mayor promised: “Beware: If you’re coming in to Providence to take advantage or abuse women, watch your back, because we’re going to get you,”
In Denver, Colorado, police routinely use Backpage.com for prostitution sting operations. As Denver police spokesmen Sonny Jackson noted after 2015’s “National Day of Johns Arrests”, “We’ll do this periodically throughout the year.”
Backpage.com Stings Are NOT Entrapment
The Entrapment defense is one of the lesser known defenses, most likely due to the inaccurate way it is portrayed on television or in the movies. What is described above in these Backpage stings is not entrapment.
Entrapment occurs when the police or “government actor” actually implants the criminal idea in the mind of the defendant. In other words, the defendant didn’t start with the criminal idea, and would not have conducted the criminal act if the government actor didn’t plant it in the defendant’s mind.
The way the sting works is that the criminal idea (sex for money) is in the mind of the john. There is a “trap” for sure, but it isn’t entrapment in the legal sense. The john isn’t forced or coerced into committing the criminal act. Now, if there is evidence of improper pressure or persuasion by the police, then there could be an entrapment defense, even in a Backpage.com sting operation.
The warning here is to be extremely careful when answering advertisements on Backpage.com. That woman whose phone you could be calling may be an undercover police officer ready to spring a trap.