Thursday, July 09, 2020

Can You Sue Law Enforcement for Defamation?

I am  thinking of a recent high profile case in Florida. Law enforcement planted video cameras in massage parlors and filmed various sexual acts, including Robert Kraft, the wealthy owner of the New England Patriots, receiving a hand job. They eventually arrested nearly 300 men and more than ten people associated with the establishments.

The original public statements made a large point of accusations of human trafficking, sex slavery, and the like, but the prosecutors have so far failed to file any such charges — it seems to be a straightforward prostitution case. I haven't looked at the case carefully, but it sounds as though there was never any basis for any claim beyond consensual prostitution.

That, of course, is illegal. The question is whether someone arrested, in particular someone as prominent as Kraft, has a legal case for defamation on the grounds that being involved with human trafficking is a much more serious accusation than paying for a hand job in an illegal, but consensual, transaction. Alternatively, do the proprietors of those massage parlors, who are the ones actually being accused of human trafficking, have grounds for suit?

The question is not limited to this case. My impression is that it is common for law enforcement to arrest someone, make greatly exaggerated claims about what he has done, and then prosecute on much milder claims. I am a retired law professor but not a lawyer and don't know a lot about the relevant legal issues, but it occurred to me that some of my readers might.

Assuming the statements are defamatory and the people who made them had no reason to believe they were true, is the government shielded from liability by sovereign immunity, or the individual by qualified immunity?

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