WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – More than 30 plaintiffs claim in a federal class action that a South Florida police department trampled on their constitutional rights when it secretly recorded them undressed and receiving legal massages during a prostitution investigation that yielded solicitation charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
The class action filed in West Palm Beach federal court claims the Jupiter Police Department’s undercover surveillance in a prostitution sting at the Orchids of Asia day spa illegally videotaped innocent, half-naked customers.
The April 19 lawsuit was filed on behalf of dozens of anonymous plaintiffs who were recorded but not criminally charged. They demand damages from the police department, its detective Andrew Sharp, and Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, for alleged violations of their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
“From January 18, 2019 to January 22, 2019, defendants indiscriminately recorded the spa’s male and female customers, without their knowledge or consent, without regard for whether they were disrobed, whether any instances of sexual or unlawful acts actually were taking place, or the customers’ reasonable expectations that their receiving a private service in a private setting would remain that way,” the complaint states.
Given the intense public interest in the case and the vast number of records requests submitted, the putative class members say they are concerned the undercover videos of them will be released alongside footage of Kraft allegedly being sexually pleasured by an Orchids of Asia spa worker.
Kraft and more than 20 other men are charged with misdemeanor solicitation of prostitution, while the spa operators are facing felony charges for deriving profits from prostitution.
Though members of the media have filed court motions demanding the release of the Kraft video recordings under Florida’s Public Records Act, nothing in the court file indicates that the news agencies are attempting to procure unredacted video of customers not criminally charged.
Police in January had obtained a “sneak and peak” warrant for the spa in the coastal suburban town of Jupiter, as part of a crackdown on alleged prostitution in south and central Florida. Once the warrant was secured, officers fabricated a suspicious-package scare to evacuate the premises, a move that allowed them to enter with ease and install the covert cameras, according to court documents.
Detective Sharp had told the judge in the warrant application that he and other investigators had collected substantial evidence to show that there was prostitution going on at the spa. He stated that police had gathered semen-soaked tissues from the spa’s trash, and obtained statements from patrons who admitted to paying for sexual gratification.
Sharp further argued in the January warrant affidavit that secret video surveillance was necessary to successfully build a criminal case against the spa operators. He claimed police would minimize unnecessary recording by limiting placement of the cameras to areas where prostitution was suspected of occurring.
The application noted that sending in undercover officers to solicit sex can prove a problematic investigative technique since sex workers are sometimes instructed not to discuss paid sexual activity beforehand. Undercover officers in those circumstances may need to resort to undressing or letting a worker touch their genitals to build a criminal case, he said.
Detective Sharp said that last November, during the early stages of the investigation, he sent a health inspector to do a “routine” search of the premises, and that she found beds inside with dressers containing personal items such as medicine.
According to the class action, Sharp falsely insinuated that the spa workers are human trafficking victims who were living in the spa space.
Kraft, in a bid to suppress video evidence in the criminal case, has made similar arguments. His motion to suppress claims police sent the health inspector to conduct a warrantless search and later made dubious conclusions that her finding food in the spa’s kitchen meant spa workers were living in the establishment.
State Attorney Aronberg made repeated, broad references to human trafficking at a press conference following the announcement of the alleged prostitution crackdown. But he clarified that none of the defendants involved in the Orchids of Asia investigation were being charged with a human-trafficking crime.
According to Kraft’s defense attorneys, since 2000, prostitution is no longer one of the offenses listed under a Florida statute that provides guidelines for covert police recording. That statute covers wiretapping. It doesn’t specifically mention video surveillance, nor does Title III – the federal wiretapping-guideline law.
According to Seton Hall Circuit Review, federal statutes lack rules for law enforcement conducting secret video recording. Appellate courts have relied on Fourth Amendment constitutional analysis of whether specific instances of covert video surveillance by police are justified, with circuits across the country using Title III as a jumping-off point to varying extents, the review says.
Opposing counsel in Kraft’s criminal case have butted heads over whether the Jupiter police, under case law, failed to justify the use of video surveillance in lieu of less intrusive methods of investigation.
Last week, a judge presiding over the criminal action against one of the alleged spa operators ruled that no video evidence from the Orchids of Asia investigation can be released until the court resolves motions for a protective order filed by the defendants.
Kraft has pleaded not guilty to the solicitation charges.
The business magnate and NFL team owner, whose wife of nearly 50 years died in 2011, issued an apology statement after being charged.
“The last thing I would ever want to do is disrespect another human being. I have extraordinary respect for women,” he said.