Is setting up a website for a probably illegal business illegal?
July 20, 2009 10:25 PM   Subscribe

A friend has been offered some web work for a company I have suspicions might be offering something illegal.

I'm not asking for professional advice for him (he seems to have made up his mind), but the conversation I had with him has me wondering. Say he builds a web site for (conjecturing here) "Maggy's Massage" which is in all likelihood a front for a prostitution gig. Leaving aside any moral judgments about that type of business, and assuming he never saw, heard, read or in any way discussed the true nature of the business with the owners, is there any potential legal liability if he is paid to design and build a web site for them, and they are later busted?

If so, what would the nature of the trouble be? Would it differ if it was a "one time" gig versus a monthly maintenance contract? I assume the water would be muddied considerably if there was any sort of incentive attached ("hey, if the site does well we'll give you a bonus based on sales")? Would it differ if the website was just brochureware (some photos of a pretty woman and text promising "the best massage ever") versus something with, say, a scheduling component?

I've never been approached with anything like this though I've contemplated what I would say if I was (actually, what I'd say would be "let me talk with my lawyer and I'll get back to you"). My advice to my friend was to do just that (talk with an attorney before saying yay or nay), but I'd love to have my curiosity sated.
posted by maxwelton to Law & Government (21 answers total)
I'm not a lawyer.

But, I'm having real problems imaging how he'd be at all culpable for any crime perpetrated by his clients.

He's being legally paid to perform a legal service. If he's not involved in the pimping or prostitution, then what is he guilty of?

All the massage parlors I know have signs out front. I really doubt that the sign painters get busted when the parlor's broken up. The building super doesn't get busted. The contractor who put up the room dividers doesn't get busted. The electrician who set up the subdued lighting and the plumber who added the clearly-groupsex-designed showers to an office building also do not get busted.

I cant even imagine that it matters if the owners explicitly say, "We're running whores here." It probably doesn't even matter if he's literally witness to prostitution. He's not violating any laws by providing lawful service. Hell, right this moment, I can, completely legally, put up a website explicitly claiming to have live prostitutes in my attic. The only illegal acts in prostitution are the actual pimping (pandering), the actual whoring, and paying for sex. Everything else, so long as it was legal to begin with, is still legal.

(However, I make a note: massage parlors are, almost invariably, staffed with literal slave labor. Like, girls kidnapped from rural China, smuggled into the US, and held prisoner in that massage parlor. I personally think prostitution is a valid and respectable career. But a massage parlor is as bad as, if not worse than, a cotton plantation. And the people who run them deserve to die, like any other slave owner.)
posted by Netzapper at 10:46 PM on July 20, 2009

Netzapper: He's not violating any laws by providing lawful service.

When it comes to puritan targets, the law can & does cover actions other than the direct commission of the crime: think of laws outlawing non-photographic depictions of child porn (i.e. no actual kids involved) or crimes that impute a mental state i.e. possession of controlled substance with intent to distribute (based on quantity) or asset forfeiture where the burden is on the accused trying to recover the property. I can very well imagine a crime like 'facilitating prostitution' being on the books for those who knowingly assist in activities related to prostitution.
posted by daksya at 11:58 PM on July 20, 2009

But, I'm having real problems imaging how he'd be at all culpable for any crime perpetrated by his clients.

He's being legally paid to perform a legal service. If he's not involved in the pimping or prostitution, then what is he guilty of?

IANAL, but Conspiracy. Now it may very well be in his pure heart he would actually be innocent but if he had a strong suspicion that the website is for prostitution then is he really innocent?

And even if he had no idea, he would have no way to prove he had no idea, and what do you think a jury would think?

That might seem counter intuitive because massage parlors are not really that big of a deal, not something that prosecutors really go after. What do you think would happen to this web guy if the employer was involved in a child sex ring? Or an Al-Quaeda affiliated arms dealer?

The question isn't really "Is it technically illegal, given perfect knowledge?" but "given sketchy knowledge, would a prosecutor try to ensnare everyone in a conspiracy charge?"
posted by delmoi at 12:27 AM on July 21, 2009

And even if he had no idea, he would have no way to prove he had no idea, and what do you think a jury would think?

Well, the burden is on the prosecution to show that he agreed to commit a crime or entered into a deal for somebody else to commit a crime. Again, the only thing the Friend is agreeing to is to make a webpage in return for money, which is lawful. Even if he knows that the money is coming from whoring, and that the webpage is related to whoring, the things he's agreed to do, and the things he's asked other people to do, are lawful. It's my understanding that only in the case of murder is mere knowledge of the crime, without any agreement in either direction, sufficient for conspiracy--or knowledge just makes you an accomplice, I can't recall.

Furthermore, the crime that they'd need to show he conspired to commit is pandering (unless he's fucking somebody). They would need to show that he entered into an agreement with the other defendants to operate the parlor. [As a think about it, if he's getting a piece of the action, this is an open-and-shut case for any prosecutor. But, let's assume we're talking regular contractor fees.]

But, it's going to be really hard for a prosecutor to show that the Friend had anything at all to do with operating the parlor if the extent of the relationship is purely contractor/client. I've run webpages for companies, even ones instrumental to their business... and I can't imagine anybody claiming that I was legally involved in the operations of that business.

Although, of course, I might be totally incorrect if a law like dakysa's is on the books. Something like that could make creating the webpage, in and of itself, unlawful if the dude has knowledge.

Anyway, I'm intrigued by this, so I'm hoping that some sort of criminal lawyer comes through here and lends some authority to somebody's answer.

[Please don't take my arguments as, in any way, constituting legal advice. My argument is written in the declarative because I find it tiresome to qualify every sentence with "I think" or "perhaps", not because I think I'm stating objective facts.]
posted by Netzapper at 1:41 AM on July 21, 2009

My question used prostitution as an example as I think that is what he has been approached to do, but my interest goes beyond that.

Delmoi brings up an interesting point. To clarify, I am interested in an answer to "what's a provider's culpability if it turns out he performs a service for (and that facilitates) an illegal operation which he knew nothing about?"--but I'm really interested in an answer to "what's a provider's culpability if he knows (or strongly suspects) what the real (illegal) business is even if no one actually comes out and says (or writes) it down?"
posted by maxwelton at 3:10 AM on July 21, 2009

All dating sites provide this service without facing legal repercussions, some even use fairly explicit ads. I briefly worked for a fairly innocent one, but even they knew the "professionals" were worth leaving alone. I know craigslist's eventually faced some legislative pressure restricting their erotic advertisements. But I'd be unsurprised if I learned that lobbyists for or created that pressure. So I'm not sure this market is quite so open as your friend imagines.

I general, I suppose craiglist vs. dating sites gives a good object lesson : You be fine if you create private communication conduits. If you make the business public, then you'll eventually attract the attention of puritans, and maybe the lobbyists for those with more plausible deniability.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:52 AM on July 21, 2009

I wonder if (and this is pure speculation -- I'm no expert) the money being used to pay him was obtained illegally, then he might have to give the money up if the client gets busted, even if he's held blameless. (This happens in the case of stolen money. I don't know about other types of illegal activity).
posted by winston at 5:39 AM on July 21, 2009

jeffburdges, I believe you've misunderstood the question. It isn't whether or not providing a site for hookers is plausibly deniable.

It's whether doing the promo site for a brick and mortar brothel results in legal culpability for the web designer.

My question used prostitution as an example as I think that is what he has been approached to do, but my interest goes beyond that.

So, I just did the research for WA (since you didn't mention your state). It would appear that daksya's instinct is correct here:

In WA, it is a crime to promote prostitution:
(1) A person is guilty of promoting prostitution in the second degree if he knowingly:

(a) Profits from prostitution; or

(b) Advances prostitution.

(2) Promoting prostitution in the second degree is a class C felony
The definition of "advances prostitution" is found here, with the relevant sections being "A person "advances prostitution" if, acting other than as a prostitute or as a customer thereof...procures or solicits customers for prostitution...or engages in any other conduct designed to institute, aid, or facilitate an act or enterprise of prostitution."

However, again, if you look at the actual cite (and not the definition), we see that it's only if the person knowingly advanced prostitution.

So, my arguments that your friend could knowingly build the site for a brothel are absolutely and completely untrue for the State of Washington. However, in the case of (real) ignorance, it is still lawful to produce the website. The concept you're looking for, to make this distinction, is mens rea.

As for the website for other illegal activities... well, you should check the revised statutes for the state you're interested in. If they have a similar "promoting $crime" or "facilitating $crime" law for the illegal activity you're curious about, they could probably pop you for the website promoting it.
posted by Netzapper at 6:15 AM on July 21, 2009

If your friend makes a site for them, has anything illegal gone on yet? No.

If your friend does maintenance on the site every month, is he doing anything illegal? No.

If you are supplying a legal service to someone and they turn around and commit a crime, how are you at fault?
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:29 AM on July 21, 2009

there's a massage parlor near my house that was vandalized a few weeks ago by some religious zealots. your frend might not want to advertise his work for that particular client.
posted by lester at 6:39 AM on July 21, 2009

IANAL but it seems to me that if you even touched the transfer of money between the ladies and their clients with a ten-foot pole you could be treated as part of a criminal enterprise; if you were providing a service, for example, which allowed the activity to be paid for via some sort of ecommerce transaction, even in an made-up Linden-dollars-like e-currency, I'd think that would be exposing yourself to litigation. (Hmmm... I wonder if something like MeFi favorites could be construed as an e-currency if a team of lawyers really, really wanted to?)

But hopefully things like that one are obvious and you'll have no trouble steering clear.

Also, I think that daksya's notion has merit because to my understanding the cause of things being more reasonable in the last several decades has primarily been non-enforcement of existing statutes. There's been Larry Flynt and all that but my impression is that the laws in general haven't actually been enforced (albeit with First Amendment decisions like that the ammo is in place.) So some future conservative hegemony, heaven forfend, might already have books and books and books to throw at you if they so chose.
posted by XMLicious at 6:58 AM on July 21, 2009

While IANAL isn't another big takeaway from this is that you can be harassed by the authorities via subpoenas and the like if this firm is every investigated/prosecuted. The contractor may not be liable in the end but may be increasing the likelihood that he will need to pay for the services of his own council.
posted by mmascolino at 7:02 AM on July 21, 2009

Setting up a website for a legitimate business is fine. If the operators are secretly breaking the law, that's their problem.

Setting up a *wink* website *wink* for a #nudge# legitimate #nudge# business, there's an outside chance of legal trouble.

If your friend knowingly builds a website to promote illegal, immoral activity, perhaps your friend is in serious money or moral trouble.
posted by theora55 at 7:15 AM on July 21, 2009

Wow, there's some horrible legal advice here from people who are not lawyers, based on misunderstandings of accomplice liability.

IANYL, nor am I your friends lawyer. But if a person has knowledge that a product he is selling will be used in a crime and uses that knowledge to his financial benefit, he most certainly can be tried as an accomplice to the crime.

If you come to me and say you need a gun because you plan on robbing a bank and I sell you one at a mark-up, well, I'm an accomplice. If you don't say anything about it to me, then rob the bank, I'm not. This is basic substantive law of accomplice liability.

So if I were your friend, I'd be careful.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:10 AM on July 21, 2009

The right hand doesn't have to know what the left hand is doing in order to prove conspiracy. If the business was to get busted, and the criminal enterprise is of significant size, your friend could indeed end up getting arrested. Since his role is relatively small, though, the pressure would be on him to save himself by squealing on the bigger fish. They don't really care about your friend, but they'll lean on in an effort to get the boss. But if the bigger fish isn't really all that big to begin with, he probably has nothing to worry about.

In other words, being John Gotti's webmaster would be a whole lot more risky than being the Happy Endings Massage Parlor's webmaster.

But of course IANAL, so I could just be making all of this up.
posted by spilon at 9:13 AM on July 21, 2009

Everyone is getting tangled up in this mens rea problem. Let's look at Netzapper's cite and assume that you have a similar law operating in your state. Friend is off the hook if the prosecution can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was promoting prostitution. That ends up being an issue of fact that goes to the jury, and they need to decide if they think he knew or not. Note that forced ignorance isn't a defense, and if the prosecution can prove that he was deliberately ignorant despite suspicions of wrongdoing, the jury is allowed to infer that he knew what was going on. The case then hinges on the facts of the website/contract, and whether he can argue with a straight face that he thought they were providing a legitimate service.

Note that none of this has anything to do with the hassle of defending against a criminal complaint, which can be substantial.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:22 AM on July 21, 2009

My friend and I are both in WA, so thank you for the cite, Netzapper.

In our rambling dinner conversation yesterday, I did mention to my friend that even if this was something that was legal (which I wasn't sure about) that it was definitely a way to potentially get a lot of extra hassle and attention from the law.
posted by maxwelton at 12:14 PM on July 21, 2009

Well, the burden is on the prosecution to show that he agreed to commit a crime or entered into a deal for somebody else to commit a crime. Again, the only thing the Friend is agreeing to is to make a webpage in return for money, which is lawful.

First of all, you're not a lawyer, the question is 'what could they be charged with'? And second of all most people don't want to get to the point where they have to consider the quality of a prosecutors argument against them in the first place.
posted by delmoi at 12:45 PM on July 21, 2009

One way to check on police activity in your area is to visit "hobbyist sites" to find where the police are cracking down hardest on massage parlors and the like. If the massage parlor is in that area, he might want to pass on the job. Those stings come in waves and word spreads quickly throughout the community. Otherwise find a lawyer friend or friend of a friend, buy him a beer and ask this question.

Either would be more helpful than the guesses in this thread (100 to 1, "whore" is not a legal term in WA). I know some about the law in two states, but I'm not about to hazard a guess about something I don't know about.

I do know that hobbyists share information with each other on the web. Check out their review sites and go from there. At least you'd get confirmation of whether this place is or is not offering more than standard massages.
posted by vincele at 12:49 PM on July 21, 2009

Also remember "has to prove" really means "has to convince a jury". If you're designing websites for "Empress Jade's Shangri La massage parlor" with lots of pictures of naked women is a jury really going to believe you were "SHOCKED, SHOCKED!" to find out it was really a brothel?
posted by delmoi at 12:59 PM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by johannahdeschanel at 5:53 PM on July 21, 2009

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