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Craigslist.com targeted in prostitution crackdown
It's 'the largest source of prostitution in America,' Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says

Friday, March 06, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Matthew Walberg and Azam Ahmed

Even though prostitution is illegal in Illinois, one click on "erotic services" on Craigslist.com pops up hundreds of explicit ads that get down to the nitty-gritty of pricing: "Two hundred hour. One fifty half hour."

More subtle listings ask for "donations" or advertise "15 minutes for $50 Roses."

Law enforcement is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the trade and took a different approach Thursday to try to stop it.

A federal lawsuit filed by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart asked that the popular Web site be forced to take down its "erotic services" section, calling it a public nuisance that knowingly facilitates prostitution.

At a news conference, the sheriff said his office has made hundreds of prostitution arrests, many of them based on ads found on Craigslist. But the sex-for-sale ads still proliferate on the site five months after Craigslist promised new safeguards to settle a nationwide lawsuit by the top state prosecutors from Illinois and 39 other states. Dart, who garnered national publicity last fall when he halted all evictions related to mortgage foreclosures for a little more than a week, said Craigslist continues to be "the largest source of prostitution in America."

But the filing came as a surprise to both the Illinois attorney general and the Cook County state's attorney, the public's usual representatives in lawsuits. Neither were consulted by Dart, who turned to the law firm of Querry & Harrow to represent him free of charge.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State's Atty. Anita Alvarez, said the office supports prosecutions that target prostitution but stopped short of backing the lawsuit because it hadn't been able to evaluate its merits.

In a written statement, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster said he had not seen Dart's lawsuit, but he said it was "extremely unwise" to conduct crimes on the site because police keep close track and the company cooperates with authorities.

Legal experts are divided on whether Dart's efforts will succeed.

Federal law holds that Web sites such as Craigslist are not responsible for content they didn't create—the reason it won a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that apartment ads that barred minorities or tenants with children violated the Fair Housing Act.

But Jim Speta, a Northwestern University Law School professor, said Dart's suit may successfully skirt the law by claiming that prostitution is a public nuisance and Craigslist has a responsibility not to host the ads.

Since its settlement in November of the lawsuit by 40 states, Craigslist now requires ad posters to pay a $5 fee with a credit card, a measure intended to allow law enforcement to track users' identities.

The agreement has had some impact, reducing postings by almost 40 percent consistently since early November, said Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff for Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, who signed off on the deal. Still, ads offering sex for money fill the site.

"Spend three minutes on there and you're going to see 50 ads that violate their terms of use," Smith said. "So we have a growing list of issues for Craigslist in areas where we don't think that the agreement that they reached with the attorney generals is being complied with."


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