The Florida Highway Patrol is not the secret police | Editorial
Wrong-headed restrictions on accident and crime information don’t serve the public
Two unidentified Florida Highway Patrol officers investigate the scene of a single vehicle rollover crash along Roosevelt Boulevard Thursday, April 9, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Two unidentified Florida Highway Patrol officers investigate the scene of a single vehicle rollover crash along Roosevelt Boulevard Thursday, April 9, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 14, 2020

Since when is it the Florida Highway Patrol’s mission to cover up for people accused of crimes and to turn accident information into state secrets? This is a public agency funded by public money to protect the public on public roads. Yet the Highway Patrol meekly bowed to a misguided special interest group and created a new code of silence that doesn’t advance public safety or public confidence in law enforcement.

The agency’s ridiculous interpretation of a new state constitutional protection for crime victims was on full display again this week after troopers said a driver racing another motorist on Interstate 275 in Pinellas County lost control of his car and triggered a wreck, causing three vehicles to overturn. Troopers, citing an interpretation of Marsy’s Law, which is designed to protect crime victims, did not name anyone involved in the crash - not even the 34-year-old man from St. Petersburg who was charged with racing and reckless driving. Pinellas jail records show that Mark Wayne Nettles, 34, of St. Petersburg, was booked into the jail by the highway patrol on those charges in connection with a crash on I-275.

Florida voters passed the so-called Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment in 2018. Named after a University of California student who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983, the measure that’s now the law in 10 states is aimed at protecting victims and their families from intimidation. Among other things, it bars the release of information that could be used to locate or harass victims and their families, and seeks to keep victims in the loop as a criminal case proceeds.

Good intentions produced bad results. The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, the Tampa Police Department and now the Florida Highway Patrol are keeping routine information secret even when there is no risk to victims. The measure was never intended to blur the lines between defendant and victim by extending that secrecy to the very people whose own acts leave a trail of victims. That broad application defies common sense.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Tony Marrero reported, the Highway Patrol has also adopted a new policy of omitting from its news releases the names of every person involved in every crash, regardless of whether investigators suspect a crime was committed. That was the case in at least two deadly accidents in the Tampa Bay area in the past month, neither of which resulted in criminal charges. State officials say the names of those involved might be released in later crash reports, but those reports require a public records request, a fee and inevitable delays.

And there have been unintended consequences. Nearly 200 teens gathered at a Riverview basketball court on Tuesday to confirm whether a friend and classmate, Demona Deon Oliver Jr., was the 18-year-old who was killed in an accident on I-75 on Monday. Troopers did not release the names of anyone involved, sparking the confusion. And it fell to Hillsborough Sheriff’s deputies to break up the large gathering because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The group that lobbied for the amendment, Marsy’s Law for Florida, has praised the Highway Patrol’s new policy, saying it came “as a result of our conversations” with the Highway Patrol after a fatal accident involving a husband and wife, which the man’s daughter learned from a newspaper article.

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Those rare situations are unfortunate, but it’s not the public’s fault if the Highway Patrol fails to timely notify a family member. And notifying kin is separate from the purpose and focus of Marsy’s Law. Caving to the proponents of this amendment is hardly a “balancing” of the state’s constitutional protections of privacy and open government, as the patrol’s parent agency, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, claimed in a statement last month in announcing the policy change.

The Florida Highway Patrol is not the secret police. Stop keeping public information from the public.

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