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Tampa Bay police agencies expect policy changes after Marsy’s Law ruling

Agencies that have automatically withheld the names of crime victims will likely no longer be able to do so under a Florida Supreme Court ruling released this week.
 
Tampa police investigate on East Cluster Avenue in November 2019 after two officers fired at and fatally wounded a man who police said pointed a gun at them. The department is among law enforcement agencies in Tampa Bay and across the state that are grappling with how to amend their policies and procedures in the wake of Thursday’s sweeping Florida Supreme Court ruling on the victim rights measure known as Marsy’s Law.
Tampa police investigate on East Cluster Avenue in November 2019 after two officers fired at and fatally wounded a man who police said pointed a gun at them. The department is among law enforcement agencies in Tampa Bay and across the state that are grappling with how to amend their policies and procedures in the wake of Thursday’s sweeping Florida Supreme Court ruling on the victim rights measure known as Marsy’s Law. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

Law enforcement agencies and other officials in Tampa Bay are grappling with how to amend their policies and procedures in the wake of Thursday’s sweeping Florida Supreme Court ruling on the victim rights measure known as Marsy’s Law.

The court ruled Thursday that Florida police officers and crime victims more broadly can’t shield their identity behind the constitutional amendment passed in 2018.

That means that agencies in the Tampa Bay area and across the state that have been withholding the names of law enforcement officers, members of the general public or both since Marsy’s Law went into effect in January 2019 will likely have to change their policies.

The case involving Tallahassee police officers that prompted the court’s ruling focused, in particular, on whether the law applies to law enforcement officers working in the line of duty. But Thursday’s ruling went further. The opinion written by Justice John Couriel said that “Marsy’s Law does not guarantee to a victim the categorical right to withhold his or her name from disclosure.”

Couriel said that Marsy’s Law speaks about a victim’s right to prevent information from being disclosed that could be used to “locate” them. He said providing a name alone “communicates nothing about where the individual can be found and bothered.”

The Tampa Bay Times asked officials with several local agencies how they plan to move forward after the ruling. Some said they are still reviewing the ruling and noted it does not take effect until a 15-day window for parties to request a rehearing expires.

But they also indicated changes are likely on the way.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office never applied the law to personnel acting in the line of duty, citing the need to be transparent, but automatically withheld names and most other identifying information of other crime victims regardless of the severity of the crime.

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, responding to a question from the Times, said the ruling “may impact all victims, as their names are no longer protected under Marsy’s Law.”

“HCSO will act in accordance with the ruling once it is finalized,” a spokesperson said in an email.

In a statement, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister expressed concern about the ruling.

“The decision by the Florida Supreme Court is unfortunate, as victims have relied on Marsy’s Law to protect their privacy as they cope with the trauma associated with their victimization,” Chronister said. “I hope that this ruling does not serve as a barrier in preventing victims from reporting crimes and seeking justice for fear of retribution by their attacker and others.”

The Marsy’s Law amendment to the state’s constitution, approved in 2018 by about 62% of voters, gives crime victims more rights. It includes the right to “prevent the disclosure of 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.”

Open government advocates have said the law conflicted with a clause in the Florida Constitution that ensures the right to direct access to public records. Specific exceptions to the access are spelled out in state law, such as provisions that keep confidential the identities of domestic violence and sex crime victims. And other state laws already prohibit the disclosure of an officer’s identifying information, like addresses and date of birth.

Experts and law enforcement officials also expressed concerns that Marsy’s Law was vaguely worded and left open to interpretation. Key questions included whether it should apply automatically to all crime victims or only to those who opt into the protections. The law also prompted debate over whether it should apply to law enforcement officials who become crime victims in the line of duty.

As a result, law enforcement agencies in Tampa Bay and across the state developed a patchwork of policies based on their own interpretations of how to apply the law to personnel, and crime victims more broadly.

Thursday’s ruling stemmed from two incidents in Tallahassee in 2020 in which officers fatally shot suspects. When reporters sought the names of the officers involved, the officers, backed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the names should be exempt because they were assaulted by the people they shot, and therefore were victims.

That’s a common scenario in situations where law enforcement officials use force, sometimes to deadly effect. A suspect who, for example, points a gun at an officer commits aggravated assault — officially making the officer a crime victim.

The Pasco and Hernando county sheriff’s offices were among those with the broadest interpretations of the law in Tampa, automatically applying the measure to all crime victims, including deputies.

In 2020, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco told the Times that the law contained no clauses that limited the rights of victims by their careers.

A spokesperson for Nocco’s office said in an email Thursday that the office “will review to determine if any changes to our policies and procedures are necessary to comply.”

A spokesperson for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office provided a similar response, saying that Sheriff Al Nienhuis needs time to review the ruling and determine what, if any, changes will need to be made.

The Tampa Police Department automatically applied Marsy’s Law to members of the general public and allowed officers on duty to opt in to have their names withheld. A Tampa police spokesperson said in an email that the department will wait until the ruling is finalized, and then “will revise our policy to be consistent with the opinion.”

St. Petersburg Police Department spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez said once the ruling is finalized, the department will no longer allow officers to opt in to Marsy’s Law protections.

The department also allowed members of the general public to opt in to Marsy’s Law protections upon request. Fernandez said the department’s legal team is still working to determine how to update that policy.

Since the law went into effect, Fernandez said, 66 victims have opted in to the law’s protections, including three so far in 2023.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has been a vocal opponent of applying the law to sworn personnel acting in the line of duty. In law enforcement, he said Thursday after the ruling, “suspicion breeds contempt” and if an officer uses deadly force under the color of law, people should know “who you are and what and why you did it.”

”Transparency is paramount in that situation,” Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri also adopted an opt-in policy for the general public, requiring crime victims to ask for their information to be withheld under Marsy’s Law.

The ruling is expected to affect other offices that are custodians of records that contain victim information, such as clerks of court and state attorneys’ offices.

A spokesperson for the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, Erin Maloney, said in an email the office is “currently reviewing our processes and will fully comply with the opinion and Marsy’s Law.”

A spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Clerk of Courts said the office’s legal team is reviewing the ruling and discussing it with senior leadership to determine how it will affect the release of victim information.

Times staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.