The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday that soliciting for prostitution online is not protected speech under the First Amendment.
A Brooklyn Park man is in prison for running a prostitution ring sought to have his conviction overturned on free speech grounds.
Antonio Washington-Davis, 27, was convicted, along with his brother and two uncles, of operating a prostitution ring out of a house in St. Paul. Authorities say they trafficked vulnerable women and girls over a two-year period, placing hundreds of ads on the website Backpage.com.
In his appeal, Washington-Davis claimed that online soliciting of the women for sex should be considered speech and not conduct, and therefore it should be protected under the First Amendment, the St. Paul Pioneer Press explains.
But in its ruling, the Appeals Court rejected that argument, saying, "the speech proscribed by the statute is outside the ambit of the First Amendment’s protection because it is speech integral to criminal conduct."
Washington-Davis was convicted in November 2013 on six prostitution-related counts for crimes that occurred in 2010-2012, but police said the family has been involved in sex-trafficking for many years.
During his trial, Washington-Davis claimed he wasn't involved in the prostitution ring. He described himself as a victim – guilty only of being a member of a family of criminals, the Pioneer Press reports.
Police were able to break up the activity after the grandmother of a 15-year-old girl told authorities in 2012 that the girl had been targeted by sex traffickers operating out of the house on East Hawthorne Avenue, according to the Pioneer Press.
Washington-Davis also appealed his 36-year prison term, and the Appeals Court agreed he should be re-sentenced on one count of conspiracy.
At the time of his sentencing in December 2013, 36 years was the longest sentence ever handed down to a sex-trafficking defendant in Minnesota, according to the Star Tribune.
That record was short-lived, however. It was broken when Washington-Davis's brother, Otis Washington, was sentenced in January 2014 to more than 40 years in prison for his involvement in the sex trafficking ring.
Three other family members were given lesser sentences.