By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A 2018 constitutional amendment designed to bolster victims’ rights “does not explicitly” shield the identities of police officers — or any other people — from disclosure, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in a major decision on Thursday.
The unanimous opinion, authored by Justice John Couriel, came in a dispute over the identities of two Tallahassee police officers involved in separate use-of-force incidents in which they were threatened. The officers invoked the “Marsy’s Law” constitutional amendment to prevent their names from being released; the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a union representing the officers, argued that they were victims and their identities were shielded by the amendment.
An appeals court in April sided with the officers, but the city of Tallahassee and news organizations asked the Supreme Court to hear the case, arguing in part that the police officers’ names should not be shielded from the public because they were not acting as individual “persons” when the incidents occurred.
Thursday’s 27-page decision found that the law “does not secure a victim’s right to unanimity.”
“We conclude that Marsy’s Law does not guarantee to a victim the categorical right to withhold his or her name from disclosure,” Couriel wrote.
Marsy’s Law put into the Constitution a variety of rights for crime victims, including “the right to prevent the disclosure of information of 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 law defines a victim as a “person who suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime or threat or against whom the crime or delinquent act is committed.”
Couriel’s opinion repeatedly pointed to a section of the law dealing with the disclosure of information that could be used to locate victims or their families.
“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,” Couriel wrote. “In all, what the text suggests, the context confirms: (the section) does not secure a victim’s right to anonymity.”
Couriel rejected police arguments that the amendment required concealment of a victim’s name upon his or her request.
“Fairly read, the text does no such thing. For it is one thing to identify a person and another altogether to locate or harass him or her,” he wrote.
The law should be interpreted to shield “only information that can be used to locate or harass, rather than identify, a victim,” the justice added.
“Protecting crime victims from being located — as opposed to identified — is a meaningful distinction, for exposure of a crime victim’s location creates a threat of physical danger that exposure of his or her name alone does not generally pose,” he wrote.
Jennifer Fennell, a spokeswoman for the group Marsy’s Law for Florida, said the justices’ “ruling that this be applied very generally to all crime victims is disappointing, especially as they recognize in this same ruling that certain categories of victims have the right to prevent the public disclosure of their names.”
“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,” 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.”
But attorney Mark Caramanica, whose firm Thomas & LoCicero represents the news outlets, said in a statement that the ruling is “a win for government transparency,”
“The court applied a common sense approach to interpreting Marsy’s Law that reins in overzealous applications that hide newsworthy information from the public. In this case, the issues could not have been weightier and the court’s ruling prevents police officers from shielding their names when on-duty shootings occur,” Caramanica said.
John Kazanjian, president of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told The News Service of Florida he was disappointed in the court’s ruling but considered it a victory of sorts.
“Well, I was definitely shocked that they struck it down, but if you read the whole ruling, I think it’s a win for police because they put us in a category with everybody,” Kazanjian said. “I’m disappointed, absolutely, but not just for police officers. I’m disappointed for all victims. But listen, the Supreme Court, they know what they’re doing. They found that it didn’t specify for victims, not just for police officers.”
Thursday’s ruling also drew attention to a potential conflict with another constitutional right guaranteeing defendants the ability to “confront adverse witnesses” at trial.
“That right would be drawn into doubt if we found that (the section of the law) categorically secured a victim’s right to anonymity in all criminal cases,” Couriel wrote.
Legal wrangling over the police officers’ identities also exposed a potential conflict between Marsy’s Law and an older government-in-the-sunshine constitutional amendment that established one of the broadest open-records policies in the nation.
The question of whether Marsy’s Law grants police officers the right to be considered “victims” when they’re on the job has created divisions in the law-enforcement community, government agencies and even within the city of Tallahassee.
“I don’t believe that it’s appropriate for law enforcement officers in the course and scope of their employment, acting under color of law, to have their names and their personal information withheld. I don’t think that was the intent,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is a lawyer, told the News Service in 2020. “I don’t think it’s the right thing.”
Gualtieri and Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood filed friend-of-the-court briefs siding with Tallahassee. But the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office took the opposite stance, in part citing an increase last year in law-enforcement officers being killed in the line of duty.
Kazanjian told the News Service he expects lawmakers to pass a measure addressing the issue during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.
“There’s some legislators already calling us, saying, ‘Listen, I want to handle this, I want to lead the charge on this.’ So I think it’s going to happen,” the union leader said.