When Florida voters approved Marsy’s Law four years ago, the intention was to protect crime victims’ privacy and prevent them from being further victimized. But some law enforcement agencies have applied blanket secrecy in interpreting the law, leading to basic information about crime in communities being shielded from the public. It’s an unintended consequence of the law that does nothing to help crime victims.
Marsy’s Law is a state constitutional amendment that passed in 2018 with 61% voter approval. It is meant to give crime victims a “meaningful role” as criminal cases move through the justice system and allows them 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 disclosure piece is what has proved problematic.
Even around Tampa Bay, the law has been applied differently. The Hillsborough and Pasco sheriff’s offices and the Tampa Police Department have been redacting all victim information from case records automatically. The St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office have only invoked Marsy’s Law if a victim specifically requests it. Once cases reach State Attorney’s Offices, it becomes the decision of prosecutors how and what information to keep private. As with police agencies, those decisions have differed from county to county, undermining Florida’s long commitment to open government and creating uneven levels of public access.
A procedural rule approved by the Florida Supreme Court requires government agencies to file a form notifying the clerk of court whenever they file a court document that may contain crime victims’ confidential information. The clerk of court then redacts that information. But it leaves open the question of whether the rule must be applied automatically or only upon victims’ request.
So here in Tampa Bay, prosecutors in Pinellas and Pasco are requesting redactions for all crime victims and referring to them in documents only by their initials. In Hillsborough, prosecutors still require that victims opt in for their information to become confidential. In Palm Beach County, the state attorney believes the rule applies to all crime victims’ information, not just names. But Chief Assistant State Attorney Craig Williams told The Tampa Bay Times that his office doesn’t have the resources to file a notice of confidential victim information with every court document, so they’ve just stopped filing many documents. How’s that for an unintended consequence?
Public visibility into police agencies’ work is essential for maintaining trust within communities. It’s also necessary for understanding trends and upticks in criminal activity. Every rule and procedure and redaction that erodes that openness will ultimately make Florida’s cities less safe.
By a plain reading, Marsy’s Law seems to provide common-sense protections to victims of crimes. But in its application, the law has made police and prosecutors’ jobs harder by leaving too much open to interpretation. And the way it’s largely been interpreted thus far has foreclosed access to information of high public interest. The Legislature needs to work to clarify the law’s gray areas and restore openness in Florida’s criminal justice system.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.