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Court cases from last year’s sex trafficking sting drag on slowly


One year after more than 160 men were arrested in Indian River County during a highly publicized but legally troubling sex trafficking sting, the fate of most of those cases rests with Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, which will determine whether law enforcement videos recorded at two local massage spas may be used as evidence.

The slow-moving appeals process also has placed on hold a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the city of Vero Beach by a Fort Pierce-based attorney who claims the way police conducted video surveillance violated spa customers’ Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

“The federal court has stayed the proceeding, pending the Fourth District’s ruling on the videos,” said island resident Brad Jefferson, the attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Until the stay is lifted, I’m not allowed to move forward. As soon as that happens, though, we’ll file our request for certification as a class with the judge.”

Jefferson had only one plaintiff when he filed the lawsuit in May – nine days after County Judges David Morgan and Nicole Menz both ruled the videos were inadmissible in court – but he said Monday he now has as many as 12.

He expects more to join the lawsuit after the appeals court rules and the class is certified.

“I’m not sure how many plaintiffs we’ll end up with,” Jefferson said. “More than 140 people experienced some violation of their right to privacy. Once we get the class certified, we’ll represent all of them.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim to have been “subjected to public humiliation by incessantly published photographs and references in the press and media” and “suffered emotional upset, depression, loss of self-esteem and other damages as a result of this unlawful, unconstitutional conduct” by the police.

The photos of the accused were posted for months in rogues galleries on, the website of the local Gannett newspaper.

The suit also claims the police’s actions “were taken without regard for the risk of public defamation” of the accused men, and that the police “relished in the aftermath of this operation and enjoyed the publicity.”

While Florida law places limits on how much governmental agencies are liable for in civil damages – $200,000 per person, $300,000 per incident – Jefferson said there is no cap in civil rights cases.

“The city has insurance,” he said.

The city hired the Orlando-based law firm of Dean, Ringers, Morgan & Lawton. William Lawton, a top civil litigation lawyer, is expected to serve as the lead attorney.

Jefferson said he didn’t believe his lawsuit would impact the criminal cases or the appeal filed by the State Attorney’s Office after Morgan and Menz suppressed the police videos.

In fact, State Attorney Bruce Colton said Monday the civil lawsuit had “no effect” on his decision to pursue the appeal.

“I’m aware of the suit, but we’re not a party to it and doesn’t impact what we’re doing,” Colton said. “It’s a federal question that will be answered in federal court.”

As for the appeal, Colton said attorneys for both the prosecution and defense must file their briefs with the Fourth District in West Palm Beach this week. Then, the court will schedule oral arguments.

Based on past cases, Colton said it could take the appeals court three to 12 months to issue its opinion.

Thus far, 64 of the men arrested in this county during the prostitution sting have accepted the State Attorney’s Office’s offer to enter a diversion program that, when successfully completed, results in the misdemeanor solicitation charges being dropped.

The diversion contract requires the men to pay more than $700 in fees, complete an online course on prostitution and human trafficking awareness, and undergo six months of probation-like supervision.

Defendants aren’t required to admit guilt, but they must enter a “no contest” plea that prosecutors hold in abeyance until all the conditions of the deal are met.

Colton said 31 of the men have successfully completed the program.

Vero Beach attorney Andy Metcalf, who represented 35 of the accused men, said about half of them took the diversion deal, which, he points out, wasn’t offered until July – after the local judges tossed the spa videos and put a serious dent in the state’s cases.

“I completely understand why some of these guys took the diversion offer,” Metcalf said. “But the clients I have left are not going to quit, and I plan to keep going, too.”

He said he has advised his clients to delay taking civil action until the appeals court rules on the videos.

“I don’t blame these guys, because they’re very upset, but I’ve told them that there’s plenty of time for that,” Metcalf said, adding “there are a lot of reasons people are mad – and a lot of it is because of that gratuitous  press conference after the arrests.

“This thing has destroyed marriages, cost people their jobs, ruined reputations – it changed forever all of these guys’ lives,” he continued. “Do you do that to people for a second-degree misdemeanor?”