A Florida judge on Wednesday temporarily halted the release of police surveillance videos of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and 24 other men who are accused of paying for sex at a massage spa.
During an emergency hearing, Circuit Court Judge Joseph Marx barred the release of any video from the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in connection with two women charged with prostitution. Florida prosecutors had indicated earlier in the day that they were planning to eventually make pixelated copies of the video available to the public.
‘‘I don’t want this released until I've ruled,’’ Marx said, according to reports. He has scheduled a hearing for April 29.
The developments unfolded as Kraft continues to fight against public release of the video, and lawyers for media outlets, including the Globe, argue that the footage should be released under the state’s public records law.
Kraft, 77, is charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution during separate visits to the spa on Jan. 19 and Jan. 20. He has denied engaging in illegal activity, pleaded not guilty, and requested a jury trial. One of Kraft’s attorneys last week described the recording of Kraft’s actions in the spa as “pornography.”
Kraft and 14 other men charged in the case have asked a judge to issue a protective order blocking the public release of the videos, a request opposed by the Globe and other media outlets. Prosecutors have not taken a stance in that case.
However, prosecutors on Wednesday shifted the focus to the prosecution of the woman identified as the owner of the spa, Hua Zhang, and the manager, Lei Wang. Kraft visited the spa on Jan. 19 and Jan. 20 and was videotaped on both days by Jupiter police, who had secretly installed a surveillance camera while investigating what authorities had described as human trafficking in the spa.
The two women have both pleaded not guilty to numerous charges, including maintaining a house of prostitution. Prosecutors have said there are no human trafficking charges filed in the Jupiter massage parlor cases.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office said in court papers it is obligated under Florida law to provide the video to the public and the media now and cannot wait for a judge to decide whether it should be kept under seal while the two women are prosecuted.
In court papers, prosecutors said that — unless a judge tells them not to — they would move forward with releasing the videos obtained by Jupiter police, in partially pixelated form.
Prosecutors, “as the custodian of the records, cannot delay the release of records to allow a person to raise a constitutional challenge to the release of the documents,’’ Aronberg’s office wrote Wednesday. “The Public Records Act does not allow a custodian to delay the production of records to allow the resolution of a constitutional challenge to the release of the documents.”
Messages left with Aronberg’s office were not immediately returned Wednesday night.
In their emergency motion Wednesday, Kraft’s lawyers said “releasing the videos would violate Mr. Kraft’s constitutional rights if disseminated, and Mr. Kraft has an obvious and profound stake in any potential disclosure of the sensitive materials at issue, which, among other things, depict him naked, and should therefore be permitted to intervene for the sake of protecting his interests and informing this Court’s decision.”
Eric M. Matheny, a Florida defense attorney not involved in the case, noted that the state has “a pretty strong public records law.”
“If it’s part of the case, there’s a good chance it’s going to be released,” he said. “If there’s anyone not involved on the video, it could be redacted, but if it’s part of the court file, part of the case, it’s part of the public record.”
Matheny said Kraft’s arguments against releasing the video “are valid arguments” and said that Kraft’s lawyers are trying to protect their client from embarrassment. He also noted that the videos are probably the strongest evidence the prosecution has.
He expected Zhang and Wang’s attorneys to make similar arguments to Kraft’s legal team regarding sealing the video evidence, namely that the release of the videos would violate their clients’ rights of privacy and constitutional process.
According to a court filing from the legal team representing media outlets, including the Globe, Florida “provides a constitutional right of access to public records that can only be overcome by an agency’s invocation of a specific statutory exemption or a proponent of closure.”
The video has “reached the status of a public record,” the filing said.
In their emergency motion Wednesday, Kraft’s high-powered legal team noted that prosecutor Greg Kridos said during a recent court hearing in Wang’s case that the state “can promise the court we are not going to release them [the videos] without an order from your Honor.”
Apparently, Kraft’s lawyers wrote, that statement was just a “ruse.”
“As the Court may be aware, Mr. Kraft’s case has generated more press coverage and media attention than perhaps any other misdemeanor prosecution in recent history,” his lawyers wrote.
“[T]he media’s outsized appetite for the videos — the substance of which is already purportedly described in publicly available documents — appears to be based not on a desire to shed light on an important public event, but rather to humiliate Mr. Kraft and appeal to the prurient interests of a certain members of the public who are zealous to inspect the supposed dirty laundry of public figures.”
William Burck, a lawyer for Kraft, also had a testy e-mail exchange with Kridos on Wednesday morning, according to legal filings.
“Your efforts to release the videos are not only illegal, they are in direct contravention of your representations . . . in open court just last week,” Burck wrote.
Burck added, “Please be on notice that if you release the videos before we have an opportunity to file our motion to intervene . . . we will pursue all remedies available at law against Mr. Aronberg, you and your office, including referral to the Florida State Bar for disciplinary proceedings.”
Kridos was unmoved in his brief reply.
“Mr. Burck, as with every court proceeding we have with all of you, we look forward to seeing you in court,” Kridos wrote, according to court records.