Florida prosecutors on Thursday dropped misdemeanor prostitution charges against Robert Kraft and 24 other men, citing an appellate ruling last month that upheld a lower court ruling tossing out video footage that allegedly captured the New England Patriots owner paying for sex acts.
Palm Beach County Attorney Dave Aronberg confirmed the move during a news conference held remotely in Florida.
“Without these videos we cannot move forward with our prosecutions, and thus we are ethically compelled to drop the cases against all the defendants," Aronberg said.
Kraft’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Kraft and the other men were charged early last year with misdemeanor counts of solicitation of prostitution for allegedly paying for sex acts at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla., in January 2019.
Kraft pleaded not guilty and denied engaging in criminal activity, though prosecutors said hidden cameras had captured him and the other men engaged in illicit acts. But Kraft’s high-powered legal team got the video footage thrown out on the grounds that police who installed the cameras at the spa, pursuant to a warrant, had failed to exercise proper “minimization,” meaning that some people who received legitimate massages were also filmed improperly.
Aronberg said that while he disagreed with the appellate court ruling, he respected it. And while he never mentioned Kraft or the other defendants by name, he criticized them during his briefing.
“The Orchids of Asia Day Spa was a notorious brothel in a family shopping center, right next to a game room that attracted children,” Aronberg said. “Rich guys from a local country club lined up to receive sex acts throughout the day” until the establishment closed at midnight.
He also noted the probe was launched due to suspected human trafficking at the spa. And while prosecutors “could not prove human trafficking beyond a reasonable doubt, there was evidence" of the crime, Aronberg said.
None of the 25 defendants were accused of human trafficking, Aronberg stressed. And, he said, “there’s no evidence that any of them knew there were signs of human trafficking at the spas.”
The decision to drop the cases drew a passionate reaction from both a Florida defense attorney and anti-sex-trafficking organizations.
“I think that it sends a loud, resounding message that you can’t use ‘sneak and peek’ video surveillance if you’re not going to minimize your surveillance techniques,” Andrew Metcalf, past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said by phone.
Shandra Woworuntu, founder and chief executive of the New York-based Mentari Human Trafficking Survivor Empowerment Program, said in an e-mail, “I feel that justice is FOR SALE in Florida.”
She said the outcome of the case was a demonstration of white privilege and of the inequitable way the justice system treats the wealthy. She said Kraft “must be punished, regardless of who he is.”
Aronberg said the investigation was “never about one individual” and that the authorities “tried to ensure that everyone was treated the same, regardless of status or notoriety.” He said a “cornerstone” of the criminal justice system is that no one is above the law, and “I believe we have lived up to that mandate.”
Aronberg also alluded to recent calls for racial justice that have swept the country following several high-profile killings of Black people by police. There is also economic injustice evident in the system, he said.
“There has been much discussion about racial inequities in our criminal justice system, and they obviously exist," he said. “But there are also economic inequities, as well. Individuals with significant means have the ability to hire the best lawyers and investigators to dissect every decision point made by law enforcement” to find a weak spot to achieve a dismissal or acquittal.
“That’s just reality,” Aronberg said.
Aronberg’s decision shifts attention to the videos of Kraft. Such evidence historically has been made public under Florida’s expansive public records law, but the Kraft recordings were ordered sealed at the request of his attorneys during the criminal case.
On Thursday, Aronberg said his office has taken no position on the video issue and denounced what he said were false suggestions that his staff was somehow trying to leak the recordings. Such insinuations, he said, “were completely false.”
Kraft’s lawyers on Monday asked the court to go one step further and destroy the original and all copies of the videos that allegedly show Kraft engaging in sex acts during both spa visits last year.
"If the state were permitted to retain copies of such videos, there would be an undue and gratuitous risk that these prejudicial recordings will one day — despite having been declared illegal despite an official judicial determination that they were not obtained in good faith — be released or leaked to the media,'' Kraft’s lawyers wrote.
A public release of the videos would “cater to the prurient interest of a small subset of the population" . . . [and] would inflict more damage than any outcome in a misdemeanor trial ever could. And it should be prevented.”
Aronberg said Thursday that the videos could remain relevant in a pending federal lawsuit, as well as in the ongoing felony prosecutions of the owner and manager of Orchids, who both face charges of deriving support from prostitution.
Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @JREbosglobe. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @jeremycfox.