More than a year and a half after linking New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft to an alleged human trafficking ring, Florida prosecutors on Thursday dropped their case against the 79-year-old billionaire.
Kraft faced two misdemeanor solicitation charges for receiving sexual services while at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla., in January 2019. Under state law, prostitution is illegal.
The case against Kraft collapsed for two key reasons.
First, evidence for the supposed ring never materialized; prosecutors eventually conceded that point. Neither Kraft nor any of the other accused men were charged with trafficking, a very serious criminal charge. They instead faced relatively low-level offenses that are ordinarily resolved through a plea deal in which the defendant pays a fine, completes an education course and, in some instances, performs community service. Kraft declined to accept a deal.
Second, Kraft’s attorneys adroitly exposed defects in law enforcement’s investigation. Much of the case was predicated on surreptitious video recordings of Kraft while at the spa. The recordings occurred pursuant to a search warrant, specifically a “sneak-and-peek” warrant. Such a warrant refers to the police lawfully installing hidden cameras in a home or private business.
Sneak-and-peek warrants are authorized by the 2001 USA Patriot Act, a federal law passed to help law enforcement uncover potential acts of terrorism. These warrants must nonetheless adhere to Constitutional safeguards, including the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and the obligation to minimize the scope of investigations to unlawful activities. Recording people engaged in legal conduct is generally unauthorized.
Kraft’s attorneys successfully argued that the recordings violated their client’s privacy rights. The attorneys showed that the secret cameras weren’t turned off when law-abiding spa customers received legitimate services. Those recordings became digital files on government servers.
Last year, Judge Leonard Hanser of the Palm Beach County Court suppressed much of the evidence against Kraft. He stressed that, particularly since spa customers remove much of their clothing and are touched by a masseuse or masseur in a private room, spa customers are owed a high level of privacy.
While Kraft’s attorneys gutted the criminal case against their client, he is not factually cleared of committing the underlying act. Kraft issued a public apology last year in which he acknowledged, “I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.”
With the legal case against Kraft now settled, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could take separate league action against the owner. Kraft need not be charged, let alone convicted, in order for Goodell to justify a sanction. Goodell only needs to conclude that he violated the league’s personal conduct policy, which prohibits any “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.”
Goodell could reason that although Kraft prevailed in court, his conduct was inappropriate. The commissioner has punished other owners who were implicated in wrongdoing (some charged with breaking the law and others not). Two years ago, he fined former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson $2.75 million after Richardson faced credible accusations of mistreating female employees. In 2014, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was suspended six games after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for operating a vehicle while under the influence. The league is currently investigating Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder over allegations he was involved in, or failed to stop, sexual harassment and related transgressions.
Fining Kraft, whose net worth is estimated at $6.6 billion, might not prove impactful. The same could be said of suspending him. Still, Kraft, whose teams have won six championships and is often praised for his philanthropy, is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a punishment of any kind could affect his chances.
In lieu of a punishment, Kraft and Goodell could work out an arrangement similar to the one Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and NBA commissioner Adam Silver struck in 2018. In the aftermath of workplace misconduct by his staff, Cuban agreed to make donations totaling $10 million to women’s organizations.