Online escort directories have proliferated in recent times. Although many of the legal issues pertaining to operation of an adult Website are equally applicable to online escort venues, such as §2257 compliance, copyright, etc., a host of unique legal concerns are generated by this particular business model. Since some escorts have occasionally been known to "cross the line" and engage in sexual activity, an operator of an online escort directory must be familiar with the laws relating to prostitution, solicitation and assignation, along with the constitutional protections afforded to commercial speech under the First Amendment. This article will briefly analyze some of the interesting and occasionally complex legal issues for the aspiring online escort agency Webmaster.
Law Enforcement Climate
Escort agencies are favorite targets of vice units across the country. Regular raids and sting operations occur in cities across the United States, with cops posing as customers intent on testing the boundaries that various escorts may or may not be willing to cross during their hour long companionship interludes. By flashing enough cold, hard cash, law enforcement officers often successfully tempt escorts into engaging in, or agreeing to engage in, some form of sexual activity in exchange for money.
With the notable exception of regulated brothels in certain portions of Nevada, states outlaw prostitution in its various forms. While the exchange of sexual activity for money is commonly at the root of such prohibitions, various other tangential activities fall within the ambit of modern prostitution laws, including agreements to engage in prostitution, encouraging another to engage in prostitution, arranging appointments for the purpose of prostitution, living off the proceeds of prostitution, operating a facility of business for the purpose of facilitating prostitution, and/or owning a structure used for prostitution activities.
The seriousness of these offenses depends on the particular states’ laws involved, but can range from a simple misdemeanor, commonly resulting in a small fine, to racketeering offenses, carrying substantial penalties including decades of incarceration, a six-figure fine and forfeiture of all business assets. Therefore, a comprehensive understanding of the risks involved in helping to arrange meetings between individuals that create an environment fostering sexual activity is critical, given the potentially serious consequences involved.
Law enforcement agencies long ago realized the futility of trying to combat the prostitution problem by routinely arresting individual prostitutes and sending them through the revolving door of arrest, plea, fine and release (although the practice continues). Therefore, vice officers have tried various other strategies designed to combat the problem at different levels, such as arresting customers, publishing their names in the newspaper, educating prostitutes regarding the risks involved, forfeiting vehicles used during encounters, and focusing on punishing "pimps." But even those methods have not been successful in combating the world’s oldest profession.
More recently, law enforcement has attacked the problem from a different angle, by focusing on the advertisers of common fronts for prostitution, i.e., escort agencies, massage parlors and body scrub salons. In some areas, even the phone book publishers have been threatened with racketeering offenses if they continued to run yellow page advertisements for escort agencies, resulting in the prompt disappearance of this category from various cities’ yellow page listings. The theory is that the prostitution business will dry up if the escorts are forced underground making them hard to find. While this is certainly not a cure-all solution, it has put a damper on the escort business in various cities throughout the United States where such tactics have been used . . . that is, until the Internet came along.
The Internet created an alternative venue for advertising underground or "gray market" products and services. This instantaneous world-wide advertising venue has become quite popular for escorts and customers alike, allowing the advanced scheduling of sensual liaisons with virtual anonymity, in sharp contrast to the expense and risks involved with long distance telephone calls.
This retreat to the Internet has not gone entirely unnoticed by law enforcement, including in the State of Florida, where a popular escort service information site, www.BigDoggie.net, was the subject of a criminal prosecution by a joint effort between the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation in Tampa and Orlando, respectively.
Although police tried to shut down the Website under some creative theories, it remains active as an online venue for the exchange of information about Florida's escort services. The prosecution against www.BigDoggie.net will certainly not be the last of its kind, as vice units across the country realize that the Internet has now supplanted the yellow pages as the primary source of information for adult-oriented entertainment, including escort services.
Notably, many escort services run perfectly law-abiding and legitimate operations, and zealously protect their adult license by strict enforcement of a "no sexual contact" policy. However, law enforcement still views such businesses with a jaundiced eye, and will continue to focus on investigating such establishments for violation of prostitution-related offenses.
In Part 2 we'll examine commercial speech and the First Amendment...
Lawrence G. Walters, Esq., is a partner in the national law firm of Weston Garrou & DeWitt, with offices in Orlando, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Mr. Walters represents clients involved in all aspects of adult media. Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice. Please contact your personal attorney with specific legal questions. Mr. Walters can be reached at Larry@LawrenceWalters.com, through his website: www.FirstAmendment.com or via AOL Screen Name: “Webattorney.”