Marsy’s Law doesn’t protect anyone’s name, including law enforcement, Florida Supreme Court rules

A Florida constitutional amendment may protect a victim of crime’s information, but that does not include their name and that goes for law enforcement too, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.

News4JAX’s sister station WKMG reported that the ruling represents not only a major decision in whether the names of law enforcement officers can be concealed in use-of-force cases but also whether the names of victims can be exempted from public record, overall.

The decision stems from a lawsuit over whether law enforcement officers can keep their identities confidential under Marsy’s Law, a Florida Constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018.

The amendment guarantees a victim’s right to make information that could lead to them, or their families being located, harassed or threatened confidential.

Since the law’s passage, law enforcement agencies throughout the state have used it as justification for concealing the identities of officers who have used deadly force in the line of duty.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association sued the city of Tallahassee for disclosing the identities of two police officers who shot and killed suspects in the line of duty in 2020. Both officers invoked Marsy’s Law because they claimed they shot the suspects in fear for their safety.

While a lower court sided with the city, an appeals court sided with the FPBA.

The Florida Supreme Court, however, said the “plain, usual, ordinary and commonly accepted meaning” at the time the amendment was written did not include names.

“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, do not encompass the victim’s identity,” wrote Justice John Couriel in the opinion.

“One’s name, standing alone, is not that kind of information or record; it communicates nothing about where the individual can be found and bothered,” he added.

Couriel’s decision also points out that exempting names could run up against a defendant’s constitutional right to confront their accuser and cross-examine witnesses.

The decision does not expressly comment on whether law enforcement officers involved in cases where they shoot a person in alleged self-defense can have their identities protected as victims of a crime, even though that was the reason for the lawsuit in the first place.

The issue has pitted law enforcement agencies against media outlets which have said allowing law enforcement officers to withhold their names in these cases went against the interests of transparency and accountability.

Not all law enforcement officers agreed with the FPBA either.

In 2022, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood filed a friend of the court brief in support of the city of Tallahassee.

“This disclosure of the deputies’ names not only promotes transparency and accountability but helps to rebuild the eroding public trust in law enforcement. VSO 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,” Chitwood wrote.

While Marsy’s Law may not protect victims’ identities, the court said many Florida laws already do, including exemptions to the state’s Government in the Sunshine laws.

“Today’s decision neither weakens these various exemptions of certain information from public disclosure, nor prevents the Legislature — in performing the constitutional function reserved to it and not to us — from expanding them,” Couriel wrote.

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