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Judge: Names of Tallahassee officers who used deadly force not shielded by Marsy’s Law

The decision by a Leon County Circuit judge could set the first legal precedent limiting how the law could be used to shield the names of police officers who use deadly force.
The Tampa Police Department investigates a crime scene that involved a drive-by shooting on East Lake Avenue and North 22nd Street in 2017.  Citing a new Florida constitutional amendment known as Marsy’s Law, the department is now withholding the names of crime victims and other information. Now that exemption can include the names of law enforcement officers who use deadly force.
The Tampa Police Department investigates a crime scene that involved a drive-by shooting on East Lake Avenue and North 22nd Street in 2017. Citing a new Florida constitutional amendment known as Marsy’s Law, the department is now withholding the names of crime victims and other information. Now that exemption can include the names of law enforcement officers who use deadly force. [ OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES ]
Published Jul. 25, 2020
Updated Jul. 25, 2020

In a decision of statewide importance during a time of heightened police scrutiny, a Leon County Circuit judge ruled Friday that the unnamed Tallahassee police officer who shot and killed Tony McDade and another unnamed officer involved in a separate deadly force case are not shielded by Marsy’s Law, and therefore can be named publicly.

Judge Charles Dodson wrote in the order that law enforcement officers acting in their official capacity are not protected by Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment passed by 61.61 percent of Florida voters in 2018.

Among other things, the amendment created a bill of rights for crime victims that give them the right to prevent disclosure of information that could be harmful to them and their families.

Related: Florida cops who use force keep names secret with Marsy’s La

Dodson’s ruling clarified that the law does not apply in McDade’s killing, a high-profile use-of-force case that became a flash point in the nationwide weeks of protest against brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Law enforcement officers have a unique public duty to enforce the laws of our State,” he wrote in a brief five-page order. “The public has a vital right to evaluate the conduct of our law enforcement officers, who are empowered to arrest people and use deadly force.”

The Miami Herald Media Company was an intervening party in the case.

The ruling marks a major moment for Marsy’s Law, as it could set the first legal precedent on the law’s boundaries and its application in police use-of-force cases.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which sued the city last month to block it from releasing the officers’ names, filed notice of its intent to appeal Friday.

Attorneys for the police union argued that the officers were protected by Marsy’s Law because they were victims of aggravated assault.

Related: Hundreds die on Tampa Bay roads each year. Their names will now be harder to find.

McDade, a 38-year-old Black transgender man, was killed in late May after stabbing a next-door neighbor to death and fleeing to a nearby apartment building, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Police officials have said one of the two responding officers used deadly force after McDade pointed a gun at him.

In the other deadly force case, the judge’s order said, a suspect wielding a knife was shot and killed by police.

A spokeswoman for Marsy’s Law for Florida declined to comment specifically on the ruling but wrote in a statement that “police officers who have become victims of crime deserve the same constitutional rights as everyone else. But police officers who have committed crimes cannot hide behind Marsy’s Law.”

“Marsy’s Law grants constitutional rights to all victims of crime, in the same way that all persons accused of a crime in Florida have constitutional rights,” spokeswoman Jennifer Fennell wrote. “Victim status in Florida is granted to all victims of crime, without discrimination.”

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The ruling is considered a win for First Amendment advocates.

Mark Caramanica, an attorney for news outlets including the Miami Herald, called the ruling a “win for public oversight and police accountability.”

“The court correctly found that Marsy’s Law is not a vehicle to hide police action from the public,” he wrote in a statement.