Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill received favorable legal news on Wednesday as Johnson County District Attorney Stephen Howe announced that neither Hill nor his fiancée, Crystal Espinal, will face criminal charges related to suspicions of injuring a child in their home. Howe, however, expressed certainty that a crime occurred, even if law enforcement remains unsure as to which person or persons caused it.
While Hill, 25, will avoid charges, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could still suspend him for multiple games. Under Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement, neither a crime nor any other legal offense is a necessary condition for Goodell to invoke the league’s personal conduct policy. Goodell can punish Hill for any “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.”
As Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Ezekiel Elliott learned in their unsuccessful litigations over NFL suspensions, Goodell is empowered to make his own factual determinations when reviewing players’ off-field activities. Such determinations can conflict with those of law enforcement and neutral observers. This was particularly apparent in 2016, when Elliott was not charged with a domestic violence crime and where there were serious questions about the implicating evidence. Nonetheless, the NFL’s own investigation concluded that Elliott had violated the league’s personal conduct policy. Goodell then suspended Elliott for six games.
Police investigate an incident in the home shared by Hill and Espinal
As previously detailed on The MMQB, Hill and his 24-year-old fiancée were persons of interest in a March 14 incident at their home. An Overland Park Police Department report indicated that a juvenile suffered a minor injury that was possibly inflicted by unspecified item. The report did not say or imply that any specific person was responsible for the injury. Although the report did not refer to a broken arm, several media outlets reported on Hill and Espinal’s three-year-old son suffering a broken arm. It’s unclear when that reported injury occurred or how it might have been caused.
The police report was more revealing about the suspected crime: battery, as defined by Kansas Statute 21-5413. Battery refers to knowingly or recklessly causing bodily harm to another person. The charge can be listed as a misdemeanor or felony depending on severity of injury and type of victim. A conviction of battery on a minor can lead to a jail sentence as well as loss of child custody rights.
The March 14 incident occurred nine days after a separate and similarly mysterious incident drew the attention of the police. Both Hill and Espinal were considered “others involved” in the March 5 incident, an investigation for which was closed three days later. On a separate front, the Kansas Department for Children and Families—the state’s child welfare agency—has investigated concerns about children’s welfare while in Hill and Espinal’s home. That investigation remains ongoing.
Meanwhile, according to KCTV5, Hill has temporarily lost custody of his three-year son amid concerns about the child’s welfare. For the time being, Hill’s son has been placed in the care of another home.
Hill is no stranger to police investigations and accusations of violence. In 2015, he pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery. While a star running back at Oklahoma State University in 2014, Hill hit Espinal—who was eight weeks pregnant at the time—in both the face and stomach, and he strangled her as well. The plea deal ensured that Hill would avoid jail, but he received a three-year deferred sentence, probation and required completion of anger management coursework. Hill satisfied the conditions of his sentence last year.
Why neither Hill nor Espinal was charged
In his press conference, Howe insisted that a “child has been hurt.” He also acknowledged that the absence of charges would mean that the legal system had “failed to hold people accountable who hurt children.” Howe, however, was guided by the inability of law enforcement to determine which person or persons caused the child’s injury or injuries.
Howe knows that in order to convict a person of a crime, the charge must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If prosecutors can’t establish the identity of culprit, the prosecution will fail. Limited resources—including the finite time of investigators and prosecutors—will then have been spent on an unsuccessful pursuit. Even if prosecutors are absolutely certain that one of two people or one of three people injured the child on March 14, jurors would probably still find reasonable doubt since the culprit might be someone else.
Along those lines, it does not appear that prosecutors found sufficient evidence for criminal conspiracy charges against both Hill and Espinal. A conspiracy charge would assert that two or more persons colluded with one another to carry out a crime. Here, it does not seem that prosecutors know exactly how the child was injured. At least in theory, that means the injury might not have been caused by the conspirators. Defense attorneys would pounce on that weakness in the narrative to insist on there being reasonable doubt.
Also, if either Hill or Espinal is responsible, but prosecutors can’t establish which one did it, Hill and Espinal are probably not incentivized to implicate the other. They are in a relationship and, by all accounts, live together. They are also parents. Neither may want to see the other removed from the household.
The NFL may render a very different judgment—and Hill needs to be careful what he tells the league
As discussed above, Goodell is not constrained by prosecutors declining to charge Hill. Under the league’s personal conduct policy, Goodell and NFL investigators can demand that Hill speak with them and answer questions truthfully. For instance, they might inquire as to Hill’s whereabouts on March 14. They could also ask whether Hill sought medical services for his child and for Hill to explain the nature of those services.
NFL investigators could also insist that Hill shares any relevant emails and texts that shed light on his potential connection to a child’s injury. Hill’s refusal to comply with the NFL’s investigative requests could compel Goodell to punish him on that refusal alone. Indeed, under league policy, “a failure to cooperate with an investigation or to be truthful in responding to inquiries will be separate grounds for disciplinary action.”
Hill and his attorneys may decide that non-cooperation with the NFL is a less risky approach than cooperation. While Howe told media on Wednesday that the current investigation had ended, it could always be re-opened. There is a five-year statute of limitations under Kansas law for battery, meaning whoever is responsible for the March 14 incident could be criminally charged until 2024. If Hill offers statements and evidence to the NFL that he did not share with law enforcement, prosecutors could seek to subpoena such information from the NFL. Similarly, the Kansas Department for Children and Families can seek those records as it continues its own investigation.
With those points in mind, Hill has no Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when speaking with NFL investigators. This league would be conducting a private workplace investigation. Hill can certainly decline to comment to NFL investigators but, as noted above, the NFL could punish him for that refusal. In other words, Hill can’t “plead the Fifth” with the NFL in hopes Goodell and league investigators would stop asking him questions.
NFL investigators might seek to interview Espinal, though she is under no obligation to comply. The NFL is a private entity and thus lacks subpoena powers. It can’t compel testimony or disclosure of evidence from private citizens. Similarly, witnesses who speak with the NFL do so voluntarily, and not under oath. This means those witnesses could knowingly lie or mislead without fear of being criminally charged with perjury.
The NFL will likely also seek legal records related to the police’s investigation into Hill. To that end, the NFL will attempt to secure investigative records and probably try to speak with police detectives. The league could also rely on private investigators to conduct supplemental research.
While a criminal conviction requires that jurors be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt,” Goodell doesn’t need such certainty in assessing Hill’s actions. Goodell can decide, based on factors he deems relevant, whether Hill engaged in wrongdoing. Goodell also has full discretion in determining an appropriate punishment. According to league protocols for first-time offenses of family violence, players are expected to receive “a baseline suspension without pay of six games.” However, this punishment can be enhanced or reduced if Goodell finds “aggravating or mitigating factors.” The fact that Hill had a prior violent incident with Espinal could lead the commissioner to impose a more severe punishment.
Hill needs no introduction to Goodell’s ability to severely punish players without any accompanying criminal charge. Last month, Goodell suspended former Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt for eight games in response to two incidents—a hotel altercation with a 19-year-old woman and a separate “physical altercation” in his home—that did not lead to charges.
As to the Chiefs, the team has released a statement expressing that it has no comment while the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ investigation is ongoing. This comment suggests that the Chiefs will not cut Hill at this time. That said, the possibility that a player injured a three-year old is a serious one that the team will weigh in the days and weeks ahead.
Meanwhile, the NFLPA—Hill’s union—will keep close tabs on developments. The NFLPA would represent Hill in the event Goodell suspends him and Hill challenges the suspension through the NFL’s grievance process and potentially later in court. The NFLPA is aware that defending a person who may be accused of injuring a child might seem like a poor use of the union’s resources. However, unions are obligated to defend its members, including to avoid adverse precedent being set that might impact future players. The NFLPA also knows that Goodell can make procedural errors that advantage players. This occurred when Goodell punished Ray Rice twice in 2014 for the same misconduct—Rice dragging his dragging his fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, in a hotel.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.