Law enforcement officers shouldn’t use Marsy’s Law to hide public information

ByErma F. Brown

May 25, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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No reasonable person could be against protecting the rights of crime victims.

However, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And it’s in that light Florida residents should view attempts to use Marsy’s Law to keep secret information that should be, and otherwise would be, available to the public.

Voters in the Sunshine State narrowly approved Florida’s version of Marsy’s Law in 2018. The law’s intent — to give crime victims rights comparable to those accused of crimes — seems straightforward enough.

The exact language of the voter-approved amendment read: “Creates constitutional rights for victims of crime; requires courts to facilitate victims’ rights; authorizes victims to enforce their rights throughout criminal and juvenile justice processes. Requires judges and hearing officers to independently interpret statutes and rules rather than deferring to government agency’s interpretation. Raises mandatory retirement age of state judges from seventy to seventy-five years; deletes authorization for judges to complete term if one-half of term has been served by retirement age.”

It’s fair to question whether including the part about the retirement age for judges violated the spirit, if not the letter, of a provision in state law requiring ballot measures to address only a single topic. That’s a debate for another day.

Yet it’s important to note what the amendment didn’t say.

It didn’t say law enforcement officials could use the law as a pretext for withholding the names of people killed in traffic accidents, as the Florida Highway Patrol routinely does.

Nor does it say the names of law enforcement officers who shoot and kill people should be kept secret, using the twisted logic the officers are “victims” because they are involved in violent encounters while in the line of duty.

Daniel Stolle

Daniel Stolle

A recent example: In late March, two Indian River County deputy sheriffs fatally shot a man with apparent mental health issues at Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital. The names of the officers involved in the shooting haven’t been released because the sheriff’s office is citing Marsy’s Law.

Which makes a public review of the officers’ past conduct impossible.

This interpretation of Marsy’s Law prompted a lawsuit, now before the Florida Supreme Court, in a similar case involving two Tallahassee police officers whose identities were withheld following shootings.

Some lawmen have come forward in that case to say Marsy’s Law is being misapplied. Bob Gualtieri and Michael Chitwood, Pinellas and Volusia counties’ sheriffs, received permission to file briefs opposing the use of Marsy’s Law to shield law enforcement officers’ identities.

Chitwood’s lawyers wrote in a motion that the disclosure of the names of deputies’ involved in the use of deadly force while carrying out their official duties, “not only promotes transparency and accountability, but helps to rebuild the eroding public trust in law enforcement. (The Volusia Sheriff’s Office) desires to continue disclosing the names of deputies who are involved in the use of deadly force while in the execution of their official duties in order to continue promoting transparency and accountability.”

It would be refreshing if sheriffs in other counties, including Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers, took similar positions.

Flowers told the TCPalm editorial board he believes the names of officers involved in shootings in the Indian River County shooting case should be released within a “reasonable time frame.” However, until the Supreme Court has rendered a decision in the Tallahassee case, Flowers said he feels bound by the legal interpretation Marsy’s Law requires those names to be kept from the public’s view.

If you’re asking yourself what any of this has to do with protecting victims’ rights, the answer is: not a blasted thing.

Nor does withholding the names of people killed in traffic accidents, after their family members have been notified.

Marsy’s Law is certainly well intended. Let’s not let those good intentions be abused.

— Editorials published by TCPalm/Treasure Coast Newspapers are decided collectively by its editorial board.

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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Editorial: Marsy’s Law should protect victims, not police officers

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