ALBUQUERQUE (AP) - The New Mexico Supreme Court dealt a blow Wednesday to prosecutors' case against two college professors accused of helping run an online prostitution ring, and denied a request to overturn a lower court's ruling that nothing in state law made the website illegal.
The state's high court ruled without comment to deny a request by the Bernalillo County District Attorney's office to allow them to continue with a case that has drawn national attention and highlighted what some online experts say are New Mexico's outdated anti-prostitution laws.
A state judge in June ruled that the website "Southwest Companions" — which was linked to former University of New Mexico president F. Chris Garcia and retired Fairleigh Dickinson University physics professor David C. Flory — violated no laws.
Both were arrested by Albuquerque police in June 2011 on charges of promoting prostitution after a yearlong police investigation into an alleged multistate operation where prostitutes and patrons could meet.
But District Judge Stan Whitaker found that an online message board could not be a house of prostitution under state law.
Prosecutors then took the functional equivalent of an appeal — an extraordinary writ — to the New Mexico Supreme Court. They said Whitaker had exceeded his authority in requiring the grand jury to be informed of the ruling, and they said his decision relied on facts not in evidence.
During arguments Wednesday, Michael Fricke, deputy district attorney for Bernalillo County, said he believed that the Internet "was a place" and therefore the website and its owners could be prosecuted under the state's narrowly defined anti-prostitution laws.
Attorneys Teri Duncan, who represents Flory, countered that the state laws were clear and that the website didn't fall into that category.
"Looking at the language of the statute, it's clear that the place of prosecution ... is intended to be a physical place," she said.
New Mexico Supreme Court Judge Richard Bosson hinted that he agreed.
"The Legislature hasn't looked at this in 30 years," he said. "Maybe they should."
State lawmakers are considering a proposal that could strengthen state law to include online prostitution websites.
Experts said that decades-old laws in New Mexico and other states make it difficult for authorities and prosecutors to go after prostitution-linked websites because the laws don't necessarily outlaw the practice in cyberspace.
Fricke said prosecutors will reevaluate the case to decide if they could seek other charges.
Garcia's attorney, Robert Gorence, said his client was "joyous" after learning of the high court's decision.
"He's been factually innocent from the very beginning," Gorence said. "This has caused him great anguish."
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