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Names of officers and crime victims not shielded by Marsy’s Law, Fla. Supreme Court rules

The court ruled against the state’s police benevolent association, stating the law was meant to prevent the release of addresses and content information, not names

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Photo/Florida Supreme Court

By Romy Ellenbogen
Tampa Bay Times

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Florida police officers and any other crime victims can’t shield their identity behind Marsy’s Law, the 2018 constitutional amendment meant to grant more rights to victims of crimes.

The ruling stemmed from two incidents in Tallahassee in 2020 in which officers fatally shot suspects. When reporters sought the names of the officers involved, the officers, backed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the names should be exempt because they were assaulted by the people they shot, and therefore were victims.

In the opinion written by Justice John Couriel, the Supreme Court ruled that “Marsy’s Law does not guarantee to a victim the categorical right to withhold his or her name from disclosure.”

Couriel said that Marsy’s Law speaks about a victim’s right to prevent information from being disclosed that could be used to “locate” them. He said providing a name alone “communicates nothing about where the individual can be found and bothered.”

The Marsy’s Law amendment, approved by about 62% of voters, gives crime victims more rights. It includes the right to “prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family, or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim.”

The court’s ruling applies not just to police officers, but to victims of crime broadly. In the opinion, Couriel writes that “there is no textual basis in Marsy’s Law for the idea that victims’ names are categorically immune from disclosure.”

The group Marsy’s Law for Florida expressed disappointment Thursday in the ruling being applied to all crime victims. The organization came out last month against using the law to protect the names of law enforcement officers who use force on duty, but said this ruling was too broad.

“With the technology available in today’s day and age, it defies common logic that access to a victim’s name cannot be used to locate or harass that victim,” spokesperson Jennifer Fennell said in a statement. “With this ruling, the Florida Supreme Court has removed a right which Florida crime victims have been using for nearly five years and have been relying on this protection for their own safety.”

Couriel wrote that the court’s ruling does not prevent the Legislature from expanding the law to exempt more information, but that Marsy’s Law as it stands does not “guarantee to crime victims a generalized right of anonymity.”

John Kazanjian, the president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said he was shocked that the court interpretation lumped in the police officer question with victims in general. Kazanjian said lawmakers have been reaching out to him since the ruling was released, and that he intends to push for changes in the law.

“We’re gonna get this thing fixed,” he said.

Justices Carlos Muñiz, Charles Canady, Jamie Grosshans and Renatha Francis concurred with the court’s opinion. Justice Jorge Labarga concurred with the result, not the reasoning, but did not provide a separate opinion. Justice Meredith Sasso did not participate.

The court ruling also says that if the law explicitly prohibited a victim’s name from being disclosed, it would interfere with a defendant’s right to confront their accuser. That identity is “often critical” for cross-examination, because it may be used to determine bias or credibility, Couriel wrote.

“Today’s decision is a win for government transparency,” Mark Caramanica, an attorney for several media organizations who signed onto the lawsuit, wrote in an email. “The Court applied a common sense approach to interpreting Marsy’s Law that reins in overzealous applications that hide newsworthy information from the public.”

The case divided Florida law enforcement. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri filed a brief siding with the city of Tallahassee and in favor of releasing the names of the officers. Gualtieri’s brief said that an officer who shoots and kills someone is not a victim of the shooting.

On Thursday, Gualtieri said the Supreme Court’s ruling was broader than what was argued, but said the issue is now one for the Legislature. Gualtieri said he thinks there is benefit to protecting “true victim identity,” but that he thinks withholding the names of officers who use force under Marsy’s Law was an extensive overreach.

“Suspicion breeds contempt,” Gualtieri said. “We don’t need suspicion or contempt from the public about what we do.”

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office took the opposite stance in a motion it filed in the case in which it said it was in favor of shielding officers’ names.

Several Florida law enforcement agencies were using Marsy’s Law to automatically withhold the names of all crime victims, no matter the severity of the crime. The St. Petersburg Police Department previously withheld officers’ names “if applicable,” but a spokesperson said Thursday that, based on the ruling, it will no longer do so.

Existing state law already prohibits the disclosure of an officer’s identifying information, like addresses and date of birth.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

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