A class action claims Vero Beach, FL and its police dept. violated the constitutional rights of East Spa customers as they surveilled the business amid an investigation into suspected human trafficking.
The City of Vero Beach, Florida is among the defendants in a proposed class action that alleges the constitutional rights of customers who visited the East Spa were knowingly violated when the city’s police department surreptitiously monitored, filmed and recorded footage within the business as part of an investigation into suspecting prostitution, racketeering and human trafficking.
The plaintiff alleges in the 26-page complaint that he and other East Spa customers who visited the business between November 29, 2018 and January 27, 2019 were unconstitutionally recorded without their permission and publicly humiliated when they were arrested, criminally charged and subsequently identified in the media as being involved in a human trafficking sting.
The lawsuit aims to address whether the defendants, who include Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey, a retired captain, a lieutenant and three detectives, knowingly violated proposed class members’ constitutional rights and improperly applied for and obtained “sneak and peek” video surveillance warrants “recklessly or under false pretenses.” Moreover, the case claims the defendants “intentionally misrepresented” to the public the nature of the investigation as human trafficking, rather than solicitation of prostitution, in an effort to “inflame public opinion against members of the class and subject these members to humiliation, ridicule, and scorn, effectively creating a punishment” for the individuals “without a hearing being conducted.”
The investigation at the center of the lawsuit is the same that came to include hundreds of male patrons, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, of massage parlors and spas across Florida. The Fourth District Court of Appeals affirmed last August the rulings of four different trial judges to suppress video evidence obtained during the months-long investigation, effectively squashing the prosecution’s case.
According to the lawsuit, the Vero Beach Police Department’s (VBPD) Special Investigations Unit and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security initiated in late August 2018 an investigation into alleged prostitution activities at the East Spa. On September 14 and 18, the case says, the VBPD’s SIU conducted an undercover operation and sting of the spa, which included sending one of the detective defendants in as an undercover patron equipped with a hidden audio/video device for safety and evidentiary purposes.
The lawsuit says the detective received massages by an Asian female on both occasions, and was approached and “asked if he would like sexual favors or acts performed on him for a monetary sum,” overtures the detective declined both times. During further surveillance, on September 25, two of the detective defendants and a Homeland Security special agent spoke with two males who left the East Spa about what occurred while inside the business, the suit reads, and the individuals allegedly advised police and the agent that they were offered multiple sexual favors in exchange for money.
Surveillance of the spa continued in late October 2018, when the VBPD and Homeland Security installed a camera on a nearby telephone pole to monitor the exterior of the business at all times, the lawsuit goes on, noting investigators that month dug through the spa’s trash and found evidence they included in a November affidavit.
Despite the amount of observation and surveillance already in place, a VBPD detective, the lawsuit says, requested authorization to enter the spa and conduct covert electronic video surveillance of the inside of the business to “identify participants believed to be part of the ‘criminal enterprise’ or deriving funds from the proceeds of any prostitution activities.” According to the complaint, there was no indication that the intent of the interior surveillance was to gather evidence so as to prosecute the actual customers of the spa, including proposed class members.
A judge issued on November 27, 2018 an order allowing the VBPD to enter the spa and install surveillance cameras to monitor the premises for no longer than 30 days, the suit says. The case stresses that officers were required to take steps to minimize the invasion of privacy to “any parties not engaged in the unlawful acts set forth in the affidavit,” among other mandates.
According to the complaint, the VBPD installed cameras without sound capability in areas where customers “had a known expectation of privacy and where video surveillance is precluded by Florida statute.”
“Despite specifically being instructed to only monitor and not record, the detectives knowingly allowed the surveillance system to record 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 60 days,” the lawsuit says.
Per the case, a detective defendant observed roughly 100 sex acts for money between November 29 and December 27, 2018, “therefore making this 30-day video surveillance/recording period unnecessary.” The suit alleges that despite the preponderance of sex acts for money that were caught on surveillance footage, in addition to the tracking of the vehicles used to transport the women believed to have been participating in the criminal enterprise at the spa, the detective “improperly requested additional authorization” to conduct more surveillance, leading to another order from a judge allowing the premises to be monitored, and not recorded, for no more than 30 days.
According to the lawsuit, it is from these “various improper video-surveillance activities” that warrants were issued for the arrest of proposed class members for charges of solicitation of prostitution. At a February 19, 2019 press conference, the VBPD “not only named the class members subject to their investigation, but publicly made available the class members’ photos as well, while wrongfully claiming they were involved in suspected human trafficking,” the suit says.
Overall, the plaintiff alleges certain evidence presented in an April 2019 motion to suppress hearing on the issue of whether surveillance evidence was gathered and obtained improperly “indicated the improper manner of the video surveillance that was carried out by the detectives responsible for the monitoring of the cameras at East Spa.” From the suit:
“Each and every camera installed at the spa recorded all activity in the spa for 24 hours a day 7 days a week for 60 straight days regardless of whether anyone in law enforcement was actually monitoring the recordings.
Moreover, the cameras recorded when law enforcement decided to take a day off and not monitor any activity at the Spa.
There was no effort at all on the part of law enforcement to minimize the 60 days’ worth of recordings, and law enforcement kept those recordings stored on a server at the VBPD.
Although the Orders contained express instructions to minimize and only allowed monitoring, it was apparent at the hearing that the VBPD violated those express instructions and chose to record instead of monitor and took no actions to minimize those recordings.”
After a legal fight, Judge Nicole P. Menz ordered that video evidence must be suppressed due to a “fatal flaw” in the manner in which the orders permitting the surveillance were obtained, the improper manner in which the surveillance orders were drafted and signed and the manner in which the November and December surveillance orders were carried out. Florida prosecutors’ appeal of the judge’s decision have since been denied by the Fourth District court of appeals, the case relays.
“In the wake of the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s opinion, the class members that were subject to the VBPD investigation and who were charged now bring a civil suit seeking to deter future violations of this type of misconduct,” the lawsuit says. “The Defendants’ actions which exhibited an intentional and blatant disregard of the rights provided by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution deprives them of the right to claim that they are protected by the concept of qualified immunity since they could not have reasonably believed or concluded that their actions were constitutionally permissible.”
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