Florida voters may have had the best intentions in 2018 when they passed a constitutional amendment to enhance the rights of crime victims. But law enforcement agencies across the state have gone to ridiculous lengths to apply the measure, undermining public safety by keeping citizens in the dark about crime and policing in their communities. The secrecy creates a false sense of security for crime victims, makes it more difficult for Floridians to evaluate whether law enforcement agencies are effective and erodes the state’s long commitment to public records.
The amendment, known as Marsy’s Law, outlines in broad terms how victims should be treated as a defendant’s criminal case moves forward. The intent is to give victims “a meaningful role” in the case as defendants journey through the criminal justice system, including the right to be notified and heard in any proceeding. But the amendment also gives victims 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." That provision received little attention in the campaign leading up to the vote. But it’s now being used by law enforcement agencies in ways that defy common sense, undermine public safety and make them less accountable.
Barely a year in the books, Marsy’s Law has spawned a confusing, conflicting web of legal interpretations that has kept basic information even in sensational cases from being disclosed. Among the abuses:
-- Sebring police initially withheld the names of five women shot and killed in January 2019 at a SunTrust bank in a mass killing that captured national attention. Officials later released three names at family members’ request. The family of a fourth victim held a press conference, and soon after the remaining victim was revealed on social media.
-- Boca Raton police in April 2019 refused to provide the name or age of a man found dead in a nursing home under circumstances authorities initially called “suspicious.”
-- Police in Jacksonville and Tallahassee clamped down on the release of crime information, with Jacksonville refusing to say where some crimes occurred and Tallahassee releasing virtually no information about murders and other serious crimes beyond a general description of what happened.
-- Gulfport police withheld the identity of a beating victim in January even though the man arrested in the attack was his roommate.
-- Tampa police still refused to identify the pedestrian killed by a motorist in January in a shocking public incident on Bayshore Boulevard even days after George Gage was publicly eulogized by friends and fellow residents.
These practices don’t protect victims, and they don’t help policing. Authorities are withholding names and other basic information even as they plead with the public to come forward with tips that could crack a case. Police are also invoking Marsy’s Law unilaterally on behalf of crime victims, even though the constitutional amendment extends this right to victims and families, not to law enforcement. The Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office interpret the amendment broadly, refusing to release even routine information. In contrast, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department continue to release routine information after informing victims about the law and giving them the option of invoking it.
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“The law requires a person to request anonymity," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, an attorney who is president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. “I think there’s an overreach and overreaction by agencies that are holding things back.”
The secrecy makes it harder for Floridians to track crime in their neighborhoods, distinguish between attacks that are random or targeted and assess the performance of local police agencies. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Tony Marrero reports, police officers also are invoking Marsy’s Law to shield themselves, invoking anonymity when involved in altercations while on duty. While the home addresses of law enforcement officers are already confidential under Florida law, concealing the names of officers involved in on-duty incidents could make it impossible to spot police brutality or misconduct.
As Gualtieri acknowledges, information about crimes and victims eventually comes out through media coverage, legal proceedings or ever-present social media reports that may not be accurate. Floridians have a right to public records that reflect the security of their neighborhood and the competence of their police force. Openness also serves to better ensure the equal administration of justice. The Florida Legislature should embrace the openness that residents and the Florida Constitution demand and correct this untenable situation. This constitutional amendment conflicts directly with Florida’s constitutional guarantee of open government, and law enforcement should not be allowed to continue to unilaterally opt to keep public records secret.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.