Robert Kraft won a major legal victory Monday when a Florida judge ruled that prosecutors cannot use secretly recorded video evidence that allegedly shows the New England Patriots owner paying for sex inside a spa, dealing a serious setback to the government’s case.
In a 10-page ruling in Palm Beach County, Judge Leonard Hanser sided with Kraft’s lawyers who had argued the warrant Jupiter, Fla., police obtained to secretly install cameras inside the Orchids of Asia Day Spa was flawed.
While the “sneak and peek” warrant met several legal thresholds, it did not take the necessary precautions to protect the privacy of those receiving legitimate massages, the judge ruled.
“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.
The cameras allegedly captured Kraft and 24 other men paying for sex at the Jupiter spa during a multi-day surveillance operation in January. Kraft, 77, has denied engaging in criminal activity, pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor prostitution solicitation charges, and requested a jury trial.
It wasn’t immediately clear if State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office would appeal Hanser’s ruling, continue prosecuting the case against Kraft without the footage, or drop the charges.
A spokesman for Aronberg said Monday his office was reviewing the judge’s order and offered no further comment. Messages left with Kraft’s defense team were not returned Monday.
The ruling followed a recent hearing on Kraft’s motion to suppress the video footage, in which Hanser heard testimony from police and public health officials involved in the Orchids case.
Eric M. Matheny, a Florida criminal defense lawyer who is not connected to the Kraft case, expected prosecutors to dismiss the charges in light of the ruling.
“I don’t think they can move forward,” he said.
Matheny said the decision “cuts the legs out from under” the government’s case. It would cost the state “a fortune to appeal” the ruling, he added.
“If I were the state, I’d cut my losses,” he said.
As part of their investigation, police had staged a fake bomb threat to force an evacuation at the spa, and then went inside to install the cameras.
In his ruling, Hanser listed several problems with the search warrant, including the fact that investigators did not account for female clients of the spa.
“Failing to consider and include instructions on minimizing the impact on women, through a highly intrusive law enforcement technique in a setting with a high legitimate expectation of privacy, is a serious flaw in the search warrant, especially considering the search warrant did not allege women were seeking illegal contact.”
Authorities allege Kraft paid for sex acts at the massage parlor on Jan. 19 and Jan. 20. Officials said he was videotaped on both days by Jupiter police.
But authorities also recorded innocent patrons during the course of the investigation, something the judge found unacceptable.
“Video surveillance is a constant form of search that takes place over an extended period of time, and for that reason, it often captures innocent behavior that is intended to be private,” he wrote.
Police pulled over the Bentley Kraft was riding in after he left the day spa on Jan. 19. During the traffic stop on Jan. 19, Kraft flashed one of his Super Bowl rings and asked a Jupiter police officer if he was a fan of the Miami Dolphins, according to court documents.
Despite being pulled over, Kraft returned to the spa the following day, about seven hours before the Patriots played the AFC title game in Kansas City, authorities have said.
In Monday’s order, the judge said that the stop constituted an unlawful search and threw out the evidence.
“The stopping officer obtained the identification of defendant through the stop; defendant’s [identity] was not known to law enforcement until he was stopped,” Hanser wrote. “Therefore, all information obtained through the stop is suppressed as the fruit of an unlawful search.”
Messages left with Jupiter Police Department were not immediately returned Monday evening.
Another Florida criminal defense attorney not involved in the case, Robert Whittel, said Kraft’s attorneys targeted what they saw as weaknesses in the warrant, arguing that the search violated other patrons’ privacy.
“It’s hard to describe that as anything but brilliant lawyering,” he said.
Whittel said other men charged with prostitution will likely file similar motions to suppress the video footage.
“Assuming it’s not overturned on appeal, and assuming that others were on the same warrant, then yes, the entire state’s case is in deep trouble,” he said. “People under the same circumstances, they’re going to file the same motion and they would have the same ruling, unless there’s some uniqueness to their case.”
The prosecution’s entire case now rests upon the women who allegedly performed sex acts on Kraft in the day spa, Whittel said.
Last month, Shen Mingbi, 58, was arrested on charges deriving support from proceeds of prostitution and eight counts of offering to commit prostitution, stemming from her encounters with Kraft and other men, records show.
A probable cause affidavit filed in her case says that a hidden camera captured her and another woman, Lei Wang, 45, performing sex acts on Kraft on Jan. 19, and Mingbi later wiping Kraft with a towel. When Kraft returned to the spa the next morning, he allegedly received sex from Wang alone. Wang faces numerous counts related to running a house of prostitution.
Whittel said prosecutors will now be wrestling with a question as they decide their next move in the case: “Are they credible witnesses?”
Read the court’s ruling
Travis Andersen, John R. Ellement, and Bob Hohler of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.