Police may have broken the law in prostitution sting

Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled last summer that law enforcement agencies conducting the February 2019 prostitution sting in Indian River County violated the Fourth Amendment rights of innocent massage-spa customers by failing to minimize the secret video intrusion into their privacy.

But did those agencies – the Vero Beach Police Department, county Sheriff’s Office and 19th Circuit State Attorney’s Office – also break state law?

Probably so, but no one should expect to see anyone in law enforcement arrested or prosecuted.

You can be sure, however, the ham-handed manner in which those agencies botched the video portion of their six-month investigation into prostitution at three local spas will be a significant part of upcoming civil lawsuits.

Already, two such cases have been filed against the Vero Beach Police Department, and it’s only a matter of time before similar civil actions are filed against the Sheriff’s Office for similar tactics.

Any way you look at it, police and prosecutors in Indian River County made serious errors in conducting this sting.

The sting also exposed serious problems with how our local police and prosecutors adhere to the warrants they request for such investigations.

Florida’s video-voyeurism law makes it illegal to record someone who is “dressing, undressing, or privately exposing the body at a place and time when that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as in a changing room, tanning booth or massage spa.

It’s a crime to record such activity without a person’s knowledge and consent for “amusement, entertainment, sexual arousal, gratification or profit, or for the purpose of degrading or abusing another person.”

It’s also a crime to install or use an imaging device to “secretly view, broadcast or record a person in various stages of undress” – again, without the person’s knowledge and consent.

These laws normally don’t apply to police conducting surveillance for law-enforcement purposes, but such surveillance can only be undertaken with a court-issued warrant and must be conducted in accordance with the warrant.

The police here had legitimate warrants, but they did not abide by the terms of those warrants, which authorized them to “monitor,” not record, activity at the spas.

The warrants also required the police or prosecutors to go back to the court after 10 days to see if surveillance should be continued or if they already had enough evidence to make a case.

In its surveillance of the East Spa, Vero Beach police started recording immediately and continued for 60 days, filming the innocent along with the allegedly guilty. And they did not go back and check in with the court in 10 days as required.

Why did police agencies record the spa activity when the warrants issued by two local circuit judges authorized them to only “monitor” it?

Why didn’t anyone from the police agencies or State Attorney’s Office report back to the judges after 10 days of surveillance, as required by the warrants?

In its ruling, the appeals court cited the Vero police investigation as the “most egregious example” of violating constitutional privacy protections because their cameras recorded continuously and indiscriminately for two months.

They also appear to have broken the law.

But State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl did not respond to messages requesting an interview, and Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey said he couldn’t comment because of pending litigation
Don’t expect to see any arrests.

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