A judge has ruled that surveillance video of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft allegedly engaging in sexual acts at the Orchids of Asia spa in Jupiter, Florida, will not be released, a key ruling that may very well lead to the dismissal of his case.
After much back and forth between Kraft’s lawyers and the prosecution, on Monday, Judge Leonard Hanser of Palm Beach County Court issued a 26-page ruling blocking the release of surveillance tapes from the spa, which allegedly showed Kraft engaged in sex acts with the clientele.
Kraft was charged with two counts of solicitation of prostitution on February 22nd, along with 24 other men who had been caught up in a wide-ranging sex trafficking investigation targeting various massage parlors throughout the state of Florida. The charges against Kraft and the other defendants sparked widespread discussion about sex trafficking, as well as criticism from sex workers’ rights activists questioning the prosecution’s claim that the women at the spa were working there against their will.
Although he issued an apologetic statement back in March, Kraft has consistently maintained his innocence, refusing to accept a plea deal offered by the prosecution that would have required him to admit that a jury could have found him guilty had the case went to trial.
For the past few months, Kraft’s lawyers have repeatedly tried to block the release of the surveillance tapes, arguing that they would have been prejudicial during trial, and that the police had overreached in ordering surveillance cameras to be placed in the spa to begin with. In a hearing last April, Kraft’s lawyers argued that law enforcement officials conducting the investigation had deliberately misled a judge about the nature of the investigation in order to get a surveillance approved, and that state police knew all along that there was no evidence of sex trafficking at the Orchids of Asia spa.
In his ruling on Monday, Judge Hanser agreed with the defense — to a point. Although he said that law enforcement officials had probable cause to request that surveillance cameras be installed, he found the search warrant “insufficient,” in large part because it captured all customers at the spa, including those who were not suspected of engaging in illegal acts. “The fact that some totally innocent women and men had their entire lawful time spent in a massage room fully recorded and viewed intermittently by a detective-monitor is unacceptable,” he wrote. Hanser ruled that the investigators did not come up with sufficient guidelines to prevent the surveillance cameras from capturing innocent patrons and protecting their privacy. (One of these patrons, Joyce Vedral, a 75-year-old former fitness instructor and patron of the Orchids of Asia spa, is currently named as a lead defendant in a class-action civil rights lawsuit.)
In addition to suppressing the surveillance video evidence, Judge Hanser also threw out any evidence from the January 19th traffic stop where Kraft was asked by police to identify himself. Because the traffic stop was the result of the video footage, “all information obtained through the stop is suppressed as the fruit of an unlawful search,” he wrote.
Although the prosecution still has the option of appealing, in an interview with Rolling Stone, William Moran, a former prosecutor and crisis management lawyer with Otterbourg in New York City, said that Judge Hanser’s ruling constituted a huge blow to the prosecution’s case against Kraft. “I think it’s over. The suppression of the video tape essentially erases any evidence they have of the acts or the crimes they charged,” he said. What’s more, the judge’s ruling could be useful for the other defendants charged as a result of the anti-sex trafficking investigation who had not yet pled guilty: “the suppression of all the video tapes takes away most of the evidence, if not all the evidence that the prosecution would rely upon here.”
Moran agreed with the judge that, while it seemed as if law enforcement had probable cause to investigate sex trafficking at the spa, the circumstances surrounding the investigation and the video surveillance were flawed. “The placing of video tapes in areas where people can be very intimate, where people are taking off their clothes…you have to make sure you’re not violating people’s rights,” he said. “[It’s] tape-recording or videotaping innocent people who are there to get a service that has absolutely nothing to do with the crime.” He said it was doubtful that the charges, once dropped, would have negative long-term implications for Kraft’s reputation or his role within the NFL.
“In my experience, people forget,” he said.