Victims' rights should not trump open government

Amendment 6 is being used by Tampa Police to keep records about all crime victims secret. That is dangerous.
Crime scene tape encircles a residence in Valrico in 2012, where there was a fatal shooting. A 2018 constitutional amendment could keep the name and address of victims secret.    [Edmund D. Fountain, Times]
Crime scene tape encircles a residence in Valrico in 2012, where there was a fatal shooting. A 2018 constitutional amendment could keep the name and address of victims secret. [Edmund D. Fountain, Times]
Published January 25
Updated January 27

In Tampa, two people were found dead in a car near Busch Gardens and the police refused to tell the public anything about them. In Tallahassee, someone was run over and killed on a main road in a middle-class neighborhood and the police refused to tell the public anything about that person. This is a dangerous, unprecedented assault on open government in Florida, and it is the result of an expansive interpretation of a sentence buried in a constitutional amendment that never should have been on the ballot.

Voters in November approved Amendment 6, which was placed on the ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission that thankfully meets only once every 20 years. The so-called Marsy’s Law was jammed with unrelated provisions, including raising the mandatory retirement age for judges and unnecessary additional protections for crime victims. A sentence in the body of the amendment that was not reflected in the ballot title or the ballot summary says every victim of a crime has “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, or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim.’’

Those 35 words that were not on the ballot are being used by the Tampa Police Department and some other law enforcement agencies to stop releasing information that previously has been public record about the victims of any crime. That includes the crime victim’s name, date of birth and address. Now the constitutional right to public records and the new constitutional rights of crime victims are in direct conflict, and the threat to government-in-the-sunshine is very real.

Imagine some of the practical consequences of this poorly worded amendment to the Florida Constitution and the absolutist interpretation of the Tampa Police Department:

-- A rash of home burglaries or auto thefts hits your neighborhood. But neighbors don’t know they are at risk, because the names and addresses of homeowners who have been targeted are kept secret and no longer public record.

-- A series of robberies in stores or restaurants occur in a particular shopping district. But shoppers and diners don’t know to take precautions because the addresses of the stores and restaurants are kept secret and no longer public record.

-- Older women, or young black men, or members of the LGBTQ community are targeted by muggers. But residents don’t know to take precautions because the names, dates of birth and addresses of the victims are kept secret and no longer public record.

There already were adequate protections for crime victims in Florida before Amendment 6. There already were reasonable exemptions in state law to protect the identity of victims of particular crimes such as sexual assault, child abuse and human trafficking. The broad interpretation of this amendment treats every crime victim the same, regardless of whether they have been sexually assaulted or their lawn mower has been stolen.

In a perfect world, voters would have the opportunity in 2020 to approve another constitutional amendment that would repeal this flawed one. At the very least, the courts or the Florida Legislature will have to provide some clarity to this mess. But Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, won’t be any help. She says the Tampa Police Department is acting appropriately and plans to file legislation to make that clear. In her view, crime victims don’t even have to request that their names, addresses and other information be kept secret. In her championing of victims’ rights, Book treats virtually every Floridian as a victim and makes them less safe in the process.

The Tampa Police Department is no more accountable than the secret police in a dictatorship under its extreme interpretation of the amendment. Fortunately, there are common-sense law enforcement officials such as Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He says agencies have an obligation to notify victims of their rights and comply with their requests for privacy, but absent those requests the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office is releasing the information. The sheriff’s offices in Pasco and Hernando counties and the St. Petersburg and Clearwater police departments are taking similar approaches.

Voters clearly intended to protect victims’ rights when they approved Amendment 6. But few of them could have known about these 35 words that are being used to automatically close public records. Surely they did not intend to make their own communities less safe and their police departments less accountable.

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