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Florida Supreme Court rules Marsy’s Law can’t be used to conceal names of crime victims or cops involved in use-of-force cases

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Law enforcement officers involved in line-of-duty shootings and other use-of-force situations are not entitled to shield their identities from the public, even when they insist they were acting in self-defense, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

In a 27-page ruling that went further than many analysts expected, the Florida court said the constitutional amendment known as “Marsy’s Law” also does not prohibit law enforcement agencies from revealing the names of any crime victims.

“Marsy’s Law does not guarantee to a victim the categorical right to withhold his or her name from disclosure,” the court ruled, explicitly refusing to limit its finding to police officers who shoot suspects in self-defense.

Marsy’s Law was passed in 2016 and affirmed in 2018. Since then, it has been used by law enforcement agencies and courts to withhold the names of crime victims on the grounds that the information could be used to locate and harass family members.

A police union, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, wanted the state’s high court to extend that protection to two Tallahassee police officers who, in separate cases, said they were threatened by the men they killed and should be considered crime victims for the purpose of Marsy’s Law.

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.

Marsy’s Law has been cited in South Florida to block the names of officers who cited self-defense as their reason for using deadly force.

One such high-profile case was that of Boynton Beach Police Officer Mark Sohn, whose identity the police department first shielded under Marsy’s Law after he pursued a 13-year-old boy who was riding a dirt bike who died after crashing during the chase. The police department refused to identify the officer because they said he and his family had received threats and that he was a victim in the crash.

“The department has taken the time to consult with the City ֱ’s Office, and based on their advice, Marsy’s Law does apply to this officer in both the threats case and Sunday’s crash,” the police department said in a Dec. 29 statement, three days after the fatal crash. “Therefore, in order to comply with the law, the department will not be releasing the name of the officer involved in the crash.”

But the amendment never prohibited any government agency from disclosing a crime victim’s identity, the court ruled on Thursday.

“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,” the opinion said.

Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, said Thursday’s ruling was a temporary victory for those who have sought public records and accountability for law enforcement officers. But the ruling bypassed important questions that are likely to resurface, such as whether an officer in the line of duty can apply protections that were intended for crime victims.

“For the moment, it’s a victory for transparency,” Block said. “I don’t think it’s a rock-solid opinion that resolves the question permanently.”

Nova Southeastern University Law Professor Bob Jarvis agreed, saying he believes it is only a matter of time before lawmakers in Tallahassee pass a law explicitly shielding the names of crime victims. It would not have the same strength as a constitutional amendment, but it could add precise language about whether the public is entitled to the names of police officers who kill in the name of self-defense.

Ed Birk, a news media attorney who represents news organizations, called Thursday’s opinion “a great day for transparency.”

“The amendment doesn’t say that the law prohibits identification of victims,” he said. “It says the law can bar information that can be used to harass, and so just knowing a person’s name is not necessarily going to lead to the ability to harass that person …  I think it’s a plain, straightforward analysis of the wording of the constitutional amendment.”

People whose requests for information pertaining to law enforcement officer’s identities that were denied under Marsy’s Law may want to file new requests, Birk said.

“Certainly we could argue that, look the Supreme Court has taken away this asserted exemption that records custodians have asserted. So it doesn’t exist, so you’ve got to cut loose with the information. Whether they do that without being asked, it’ll be interesting to see,” he said. “I would hope some agencies would act in the spirit of the law and go ahead and release the information rather than wait for somebody to ask again.”

Jennifer Fennell, spokesperson for Marsy’s Law for Florida, said in a statement that the opinion extending to crime victims who are not law enforcement officers is “disappointing.”

“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,” the statement said. “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.”

Information from the News Service of Florida was used to supplement this report.

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