Court ruling on police transparency might only be temporary
In a unanimous ruling welcomed by civil liberties groups, the Florida Supreme Court ruled last week police cannot grant blanket anonymity to alleged crime victims under a victim’s rights provision known as “Marsy’s Law.”
The court said the Florida and U.S. Constitution’s guarantee that an accused has a right to confront their accuser, along with Sunshine provisions of Florida’s Constitution, mean that the 2018 voter-approved amendment cannot be used to always hide the names of victims.
“Marsy’s Law does not guarantee to crime victims a generalized right of anonymity,” said Justice John Daniel Courieal, an appointee of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The justices overturned a ruling that had protected the names of two Tallahassee police officers who used lethal force to shoot their assailants in two separate cases. A police union argued that because the officers were “victims,” they had the right to block release of their names.
But the court drew a distinction between an accusers’ mere name – their identity – and other types of information like addresses and phone numbers that could be used to “locate” a victim.
In one sense, the court’s ruling was broader than what media and civil liberties groups had expected, said Mark Caramanica, a partner with Thomas and LoCicero firm that represented a media coalition. “The court took the broadest approach possible, but it was a position we had consistently argued throughout the litigation,” he said. “The court certainly could have ruled on narrower grounds.”
After the First District Court of Appeal sided with the union, law enforcement agencies across the state started redacting most alleged victims’ names from routine police reports.
Key Biscayne was no exception, where Chief Frank Sousa opted to take an aggressive approach to censoring police reports, in some cases deleting the names of both the accused and the accuser – only to have the information later be released by other law enforcement agencies or the court system.
“We are aware of the Supreme Court’s decision and will consult with our legal team. We will continue our operations with the advice provided by our legal team,” Sousa said Sunday.
But the Court, in its 27-page ruling, also emphasized that its ruling did nothing to constrain the Florida Legislature from passing public record law exemptions – and that’s what worried Bobby Block, the executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation
“Now we have a situation where everyone from legislators, to government agencies, to records custodians, and in local government, and municipalities and counties feel no compulsion about hiding records from the public.”Bobby Block, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation
“It’s definitely a triumph for transparency, but it might be short-lived, because it looks like it’s going back to the Legislature,” he said Sunday. Already, the head of the Police Benevolent Association said his group would be looking at remedies.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” Block said of the annual basket of Sunshine exemption bills that remove more and more public records from view. “Now we have a situation where everyone from legislators, to government agencies, to records custodians, and in local government, and municipalities and counties feel no compulsion about hiding records from the public.”
Barbara Petersen, executive director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, said she warned the lawmakers in 2017 that Florida’s Marsy’s Law was too vague and open to interpretation by law enforcement.
As a result, some police departments took liberties to redact addresses of where crimes occurred and even the name of suspects arrested or under investigation — as the Sarasota Police recently did in the rape accusation against GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler.
“I believe Marsy’s Law makes communities less safe,” she said.
Petersen said the Supreme Court decision was a big win for free speech and the media, but that the battle isn’t over, saying she also believes the Legislature may try to amend the law in favor of protecting law enforcement.
“Marsy’s Law has been a very frustrating constitutional provision for people who want to know about crime in their communities," Caramanica, the media lawyer, said. “It was co-opted by law enforcement to shield core public accountability information.”
This story was originally published in the Key Biscayne Independent, a WLRN News partner.