Analyzing the Legal Fallout of Matt Patricia’s Sexual Assault Indictment
Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia has come under fire following a disturbing investigative report by Robert Snell of The Detroit News. Snell has found that in March 1996, the now 43-year-old Patricia was charged in Texas with aggravated sexual assault. Under Texas law, a person charged with aggravated sexual assault has been accused of intentionally or knowingly harming another person through unconsented penetration of that person’s sexual organ, anus or mouth, and a conviction carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Patricia’s charge, which was dismissed 10 months later, stemmed from an alleged incident at the Radisson Hotel on South Padre Island, Texas. At the time, Patricia was a 21-year-old offensive lineman and member of the Theta Chi fraternity at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). According to a report detailed by the San Padre Police Department, while he and his classmates were on spring break, Patricia and a fellow football player, Greg Dietrich, “burst” into the hotel room of a 21-year-old woman while she sleeping. The woman, who told police that she had met Patricia on the beach earlier in the week, claimed that Patricia and Dietrich took turns sexually assaulting her.
Patricia has categorically rejected the accusation in both a prepared written statement and when answering questions from the media during a press conference. Patricia, who was hired as the Lions head coach in February after serving as the New England Patriots’ defensive coordinator, insists that it is completely untrue and is designed to harm his name.
The legal process Patricia faced in 1996
According to The Detroit News, Patricia and Dietrich were arrested, charged and later indicted by a grand jury with aggravated sexual assault. Keep in mind that a grand jury indictment differs from a jury conviction. A grand jury in Texas normally consists of 12 grand jurors and two alternates. In order to indict, at least nine of the jurors must vote to “true bill” (indict) the target of the grand jury.
Grand jurors do not need to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt. They only need to find a reasonable belief (probable cause) that the defendant committed a crime. Also, criminal defense attorneys often regard grand jury proceedings as structurally stacked in favor of prosecutors. For instance, the defendant has no right to be present at the proceedings, and the same goes for the defendant’s attorney. Patricia being indicted, then, does not prove that Patricia is guilty and should not be equated with a finding of fault.
It is unknown if Patricia’s arrest and indictment led to any type of university code of conduct investigation or disciplinary action from RPI. Either way, Patricia would graduate from RPI a few weeks later with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering.
The criminal case never went to trial. In January 1997, Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Reynolds-Church filed a motion to dismiss on account that the “victim does not feel she can face the pressures or stress of a trial.” The dismissal did not have to be permanent: The accuser retained the right to request that the case be re-filed at a later date. However, she did not invoke that right. It is not uncommon for an alleged victim to withdraw from participating in a criminal prosecution. Sometimes the alleged victim withdraws after reconsidering the incident. Sometimes the alleged victim withdraws after weighing the prospect of facing the accused in court. And still other times an alleged victim withdraws after reaching a financial settlement with the accused.
There is no record of any additional legal developments following the 1997 dismissal. Court records do not show that the alleged victim ever sued Patricia. Any such lawsuit needed to have been filed in the 1990s—Texas has a two-year statute of limitations for related civil claims. Also, according to the Lions, Patricia did not reach an out-of-court settlement with his accuser to avert a lawsuit or to buy her silence. Likewise, the Lions say that Patricia did not pay his accuser any money.
Patricia issues firm denial and says the accusation has caused him “mental torture”
In a statement released by the Lions, Patricia categorically denies the allegation and he maintains that he was “falsely accused:”
“As someone who was falsely accused of this very serious charge over 22 years ago, and never given the opportunity to defend myself and clear my name, I find it incredibly unfair, disappointing, and frustrating that this story would resurface now with the only purpose being to damage my character and reputation. I firmly maintain my innocence, as I have always done.”
Patricia added comments during a press conference on Thursday at Ford Field. He stressed “I was never given the opportunity to defend myself.” He also described the experience as “very traumatic to me when I was 21 years old” and one that has caused him “mental torture.”
Lions are standing by Patricia, but what if that changes?
The Lions have issued a joint statement on behalf of owner Martha Ford, general manager Bob Quinn and team president Rod Wood. The trio stress that the charge against their new coach was dismissed and that Patricia fully denies the claims. They also emphasize, as mentioned above, that Patricia neither reached a settlement with the accuser nor paid her money.
Whether the Lions continue to stand by Patricia remains to be seen. Especially in light of the #MeToo movement, this very disturbing allegation will likely remain a controversy for the team. Could the Lions cut ties with Patricia and not pay him his contract?
On one hand, employment contracts for NFL coaches normally contain “morals clause” language that can empower the team to terminate the contract, with cause, if the coach engages in offensive behavior. This is particularly true if the behavior triggered disparaging media publicity for the name and reputation of the team. Invoking such language usually doesn’t require a criminal conviction, either.
On the other hand, the Lions presumably have no reason to not believe Patricia. The case was dropped and Patricia insists he is innocent. While it’s possible that other information could surface in the days and weeks ahead, the fact that the allegations stem from 1996 make that unlikely.
In addition, the Lions could have discovered the criminal charge as part of the interview process. Apparently they declined to do so. In a press conference on Thursday, Patricia said the topic “never came up” in the interview process with the Lions. “There was never any situation in the Lions,” Patricia insisted, “that I did not disclose the truth.” He implied the same is true of his previous job interviews with the Patriots and engineering companies. In a prepared statement on Thursday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick assured media that “the New England Patriots were not aware of the [Patricia] matter which recently came to light." A lack of awareness by the Patriots would be consistent with Massachusetts law, which prevents employers from making decisions about hiring based on arrests or prosecutions that did not lead to convictions. It is worth noting that the Lions GM, Quinn, was a Patriots executive between 2000 and ’15. Quinn either didn’t know about the charge against his co-worker, or knew about it but didn’t find it sufficiently deterring when hiring Patricia as Lions head coach.
The Lions also had an opportunity to learn about the charge as part of Patricia’s pre-employment background check. Employers and employment verification companies almost always check a job candidate’s past for any criminal convictions or plea deals. However, many do not check for arrests or charges. In fact, in some states, employers are barred from asking candidates about arrests, charges and indictments that did not lead to convictions (in Michigan employers are prohibited from asking about misdemeanor arrests that didn’t to convictions, but they can ask about felony arrests). The underlying logic of not allowing prospective employers to question a job candidate about such matters is that sometimes people are wrongly arrested, charged or indicted. Along those lines, many would regard it as unfair to hold an arrest record against a job candidate when the arrest itself doesn’t prove guilt. Lions’ president Rod Wood told the Detroit News, “Our background check was limited to employment matters only and does not disclose any criminal matters that don’t result in a conviction or a plea argument.”
Patricia can’t successfully sue The Detroit News for defamation
It is clear that some Lions fans are angered that a news story about a 22-year-old allegation has now surfaced. For his part, Patricia also regards the publication as unwarranted. During his press conference on Thursday, Patricia called it “unfair and upsetting that the claim would be brought up two decades later.” He attributed the news story as having “an intention of trying to damage my character and credibility.” Patricia said he would face questions from journalists in order “defend [his] honor and clear [his] name.”
While Patricia may be angry about the story, the reporting appears to be based entirely on facts—namely, a police report and interviews with persons relevant to the allegations. While the facts may be dated, they are still facts. A negative, but true, story about someone is not defamatory.
If anything, in this era of intense media competition, it is remarkable that this story didn’t come to light until 2018. The charge is visible on Lexis’s public records database (a point raised by Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz). Most media companies have a Lexis account, with which one can easily find a lengthy sheet of biographical information on a person, including criminal records. The Lexis criminal record for Patricia contains an apparent error— the charge is listed as “aggravated sexual assault of a child,” which in Texas is defined as aggravated sexual assault of someone who is not older than 17. However, had such a charge been seen, it presumably would have sparked even greater concern for the reader since the alleged crime involved a minor.
Patricia has been a public figure for a while, especially in New England. From 2004–18, he assisted Belichick in different capacities, eventually rising to defensive coordinator. Media companies in Boston aggressively compete in their coverage of the Patriots, which have become the most popular sports team in the region. Despite this competition, none of the regional or national media outlets uncovered the alleged incident in South Padre Island—or if they did, they didn’t report it.
The criminal case is almost certainly over
There is virtually no way Patricia could be re-charged with a crime. It is true that Patricia’s “double jeopardy” protection under the Fifth Amendment did not yet attach—it normally attaches after a jury is sworn in, whereas his case never went to trial. However, unless other evidence surfaces, the plausible crimes for which Patricia could be charged in Texas feature statutes of limitation that have expired.
Further, as a practical matter, too much time has passed in terms of the reliability of witness recollections. According to The Detroit News, persons involved in the case—including the police chief, lead prosecutor and grand jury forewoman—cannot recall details. This isn’t surprising given how long ago the alleged incident occurred. It’s also not clear if there is any additional evidence outside of differing accounts of what took place. For example, we don’t know if the alleged victim underwent rape kit testing. Further, it is unclear if any hallway surveillance video from the hotel was available or obtained. The fact that the police report was “discarded” wouldn’t help in trying to reconstruct what might have happened.
Michael McCann is SI's legal analyst. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the new book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.