Last November, a strong majority of Florida voters added Marsy's Law into the state Constitution to provide crime victims meaningful rights throughout the criminal justice process. The voters recognized that, all too often, crime victims are harmed not just by the hands of a perpetrator, but also by a justice system that failed to consider their interests. Since the enactment of Marsy's Law, law enforcement agencies across Florida, including the Tampa Police Department, are reexamining their policies to ensure that victims' interests are appropriately considered.
Among the changes that Tampa and other police departments are making is restricting the automatic disclosure of sensitive information about victims. In order to secure victims' right to "prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass" them, information such as victims' names now will no longer be automatically disclosed in public reports of crimes.
Restricting disclosure of victims' names has long been common practice in Florida — and elsewhere in the country — for crimes involving sexual assaults or juveniles. Marsy's Law will now extend this practice to other crimes.
A good example of how the new approach will work comes from the tragic events in Sebring, where five women were killed a week ago when a gunman entered a bank. The names of three of the victims were quickly released by police after the families agreed to share those names publicly. Another family announced the name of their lost loved one at a press conference on their own terms and at a time of their choosing. One grieving family decided not to immediately disclose the name.
The precise name of a crime victim is not necessary to informing the public about the horrific events that took place at the bank. Nonetheless, a recent Tampa Bay Times editorial ("Secrecy Makes Floridians Less Safe," Jan. 27) wondered about whether the new law would forbid police from disclosing the fact that a rash of home burglaries or auto thefts has occurred in a particular neighborhood. Nothing in Marsy's Law for Florida forbids police from disclosing the neighborhood in which crimes are occurring. Instead, Marsy's Law only bars release (without the victims' permission) of information that can be used to identify or locate someone.
The editorial also speculates that the new law might somehow prevent the release of general information about a series of crimes, such as the race, general age or sexual orientation of victims being attacked. This far-fetched argument is inconsistent with both what the law says and how it is intended to operate. Disclosing that a gunman has killed a person of a particular race due to racial animosity is not forbidden by the law. Disclosing the name or address of the victim not only destroys the privacy of a victim but could lead to further retaliation — and, as a result, that is what is forbidden.
This common-sense approach is squarely in line with U.S. Supreme Court guidance from many years ago. In cases tracing back to the 1970s, the court recognized that it is constitutionally permissible for the state, including law enforcement, to protect a crime victim's safety and privacy by not releasing certain information.
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For too long, Florida has automatically sacrificed concerns of victims in its criminal justice process, with the result of survivors often turning away from the system. In approving Marsy's Law, Florida's voters demanded that victims' interests be considered.
To be sure, freedom of the press is an important value. However, freedom of the press has never been understood to sweep away all vestiges of privacy. The media remains free to report on crimes and their consequences. But it hardly converts, as the editorial would suggest, the Tampa Bay Police Department into a "secret police" if they respect crime victims' privacy — and ensure their safety — by not placing exact names and addresses in the public record.
The public has no compelling right or need to know everything about someone who has suddenly and involuntarily been swept up in a crime. To compound the trauma of the crime with an automatic and often irreversible loss of privacy is to truly add insult to injury. Florida's voters were wise to adopt Marsy's Law, and the public in Tampa and elsewhere is now beginning to see the benefits.
Paul Cassell is a professor of law, S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and a former federal judge. Meg Garvin is the executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute. Both have served as unpaid policy advisors to Marsy's Law.