Group sex is not illegal, and the state failed to show that a Fort Lauderdale swingers' club operated with intent to offend, a Broward judge said Wednesday in dismissing lewdness charges against the club's co-owner, Dennis Freeland.
The collapse of the state's case against the 42-year-old Freeland - the first of 17 defendants arrested in the January 1999 Broward sheriff's raid on Trapeze II to go to trial - threw the rest of the cases into doubt. Several other judges with Trapeze defendants have already ruled that someone other than a police officer must be offended in order to prove lewd conduct.
The directed verdict by Broward County Judge Robert W. Lee - a stinging slap for prosecutors who spent months building the case - was greeted with jubilation by Freeland, who bear-hugged his attorneys, Daniel Aaronson and Jamie Benjamin.
Freeland later said he intended to file a civil lawsuit for false arrest against Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne. "The taxpayers should be astounded by the kind of money spent [by the county] on something that should never have happened, " he said.
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During a Broward Sheriff's Office press conference Wednesday about an unrelated Crimestoppers effort, a reporter played a tape for Jenne on which Freeland accused the sheriff of raiding Trapeze to help persuade voters to back his effort to create the position of strong county mayor, a job he coveted. The strong-mayor concept was defeated at the ballot in March.
"Who is Dennis Freeland?" Jenne asked. "I don't know who he is or what he is referring to." Told that Freeland was co-owner of Trapeze, Jenne said he didn't know anything about the case - which has attracted national attention - and would not comment on it.
After they left the courtroom, the prosecutors declined to comment on the acquittal and on the future of the remaining cases. The directed verdict came on the second day of the trial, after the state had called several police undercover officers and had rested its case.
Jurors said after Lee dismissed them that they had not been convinced by the state's assertion that Freeland operated Trapeze with lewd intent.
"They never proved their case, " said a middle-aged juror who asked to be identified only as Mark. "Yeah. Sure. Waste more money, " he said when asked whether police should continue raids against swinger establishments.
Magdalen O'Meara, another juror, said: "It was obvious to the jurors that the proprietor's purpose was not to offend anyone" - a reference to the signs posted at Trapeze warning people against entering if they found sexual activity objectionable.
Aaronson said the acquittal of Freeland should have an impact on the remaining Trapeze cases.
"Hopefully this will put an end to the rest of the swinger cases, " he said. "I think Judge Lee was very courageous to dismiss this case."
Lee told a packed courtroom that Freeland knew that patrons of Trapeze were having sex on the premises, but that "he operated the place so that people would not be offended by this activity.
"The Legislature did not make it a crime to operate a place for sexual activities, " he said. Sexual activity among consenting adults is not a crime, he said.
He told jurors that "In order for lewdness to occur in Florida, someone has to be actually offended." None of the 200 patrons at the club the night of the raid, only the undercover officers, complained that lewdness was occurring.
"In this case, Mr. Freeland was not charged with sexual activity. The actual [sexual] acts were not unlawful. The state would have to prove that Mr. Freeland sat down and created a business so that someone could be offended. This court believes the state has not presented evidence that Mr. Freeland is guilty."
Freeland said that although the raid hurt business for a few weeks, the notoriety of Trapeze and national news media attention since the arrests has helped business pick up sharply.
He said he had written 5,000 memberships for couples since the raid. More than 10,000 couples have paid the $20 membership fee and the $75 per entry door fee over the past 21/2 years, he said. Single women are admitted free.
Freeland said the core active membership of the club has grown to 2,000 couples from 1,500 since the arrests. "It has got to the point where on some nights we have so many people inside the club that I have to turn people away at the door, " he said.
Herald staff writer Wanda DeMarzo contributed to this report.