Friday, November 24, 2017
Public safety

Government shouldn't let ink blot Florida's sunshine policies

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People charged with crimes in Florida have the basic right to know why they've been charged.

For that reason, they get to see a document called a probable cause affidavit, which summarizes the evidence against them.

To further guarantee their rights, the public also gets to see it.

Yep, though it might not seem that way when defendants see their names in newspaper headlines, open access is their right.

It's a major check on the power of law enforcement. It's one of the protections that distinguishes our country and state, the land of actual and government sunshine.

But there are occasional ink-black clouds such as the one that appeared Sunday, when Jesse Robert Daily, 17, of Spring Hill was accused of first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his mother's boyfriend, David Floyd.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney released no details other than that the boy had left the home earlier in the day, returned several hours later, taken a knife from the kitchen and stabbed Floyd.

She did release the probable cause affidavit, though every single line telling what happened, why Daily might have stabbed Floyd and why deputies think the crime merits a first-degree murder charge had been blacked out. (See it at twitter.com/HernandoTimes/status/278524102548004864/photo/1).

As Florida lawmakers have added more exceptions to the Sunshine Law, we reporters have grown more used to seeing these "redactions," the term preferred by Sharpie-wielding bureaucrats.

But nobody in this office, not even we tribal elders, had ever seen such a total eclipse.

And we shouldn't see it again, said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation, at least not without a better explanation.

The one Moloney gave us was that the investigation into the killing was still "active."

And, yes, that does allow law enforcement to withhold information, but not, the law says, documents such as probable cause affidavits, which "are given or required by law … to be given to the person arrested."

And if parts of these documents are blacked out, Petersen said, the Sheriff's Office needs to cite one of the reasons that are spelled out by law and, by the way, generally accepted by reporters; most all of us would be horrified at the thought of fouling up a murder investigation.

Which is another puzzle here. Daily is safely in jail, and no other arrests are expected. There's a grand jury coming up, but there always is in first-degree murder cases.

The only other reason Moloney gave for the blackout was that folks at the Sheriff's Office want to "do our best to minimize the circulation of the information."

That seems presumptuous for a department that consumes more than half the county's general fund budget, don't you think?

Because open government laws not only protect the rights of accused criminals, but of regular people who get to see how their tax money is being spent.

I hope Sheriff Al Neinhuis, who has been away this week, realizes this. I hope he decides to lift the curtain on this case. I hope he remembers that in the land of sunshine, we expect public agencies to release as much information as they safely can, not the minimum.

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