Court Says Two Cops Who Deployed Deadly Force Can Use Florida's Victims' Rights Law To Hide Their Names From The Public
from the good-intentions,-awful-outcomes dept
Laws written with good intentions are being used in bad faith by public servants hoping to shield themselves from public scrutiny. Multiple states have passed versions of “Marsy’s Law” — legislation that grants more rights to victims of crime, including blocking the release of personal info under the theory this will protect victims’ privacy and head off abuse and harassment.
Law enforcement officers have discovered this law and legislators’ seeming unwillingness to exempt public employees from these protections. And, since officers are often able to claim every violent act they’ve engaged in was predicated by a criminal act by the suspect they’ve deployed force against, they’re able to claim they were “victims” of crimes, even if the crime was nothing more than the grab bag of charges commonly known as “contempt of cop.”
We saw this law put to work a few years ago in South Dakota. An officer, who shot an arrestee two times, was able to keep their name private despite being engaged in public service and presumably putting their name on official reports about the incident — reports that would be considered public records.
It has happened again, this time in Florida. Two officers who deployed deadly force against arrestees — represented by their police union — have successfully sued to keep their names secret. The Florida Court of Appeal says the victims’ rights enacted by the law are constitutional and the withholding of these officers’ name is completely justified. (via Volokh Conspiracy)
The lower court’s decision coming down on the side of transparency and accountability has been reversed. Here’s how the lower court summed it up:
The Court finds that the explicit language of Marsy’s Law was not intended to apply to law enforcement officers when acting in their official capacity.
The officers do not seek protection from the wouldbe accuseds, instead they apparently seek protection from possible retribution for their on-duty actions from unknown persons in the community. This type of protection is outside the scope of Marsy’s Law and is inconsistent with the express purpose and language of the amendment. This Court cannot interpret Marsy’s Law to shield police officers from public scrutiny of their official actions.
Unfortunately, this court can interpret the law this way. It says the lower court misread the conflict between the state’s victims’ rights law and the public’s right to “inspect or copy records of any state of local agency.” The Appeals Court [PDF] says the newer law (the victims’ right law) supersedes the older public records law (emphasis in the original).
Article I, section 16 can be construed in harmony with article I, section 24(a)—without excluding from the definition of crime victim any person entitled to protection under article I, section 16. Article I, section 24(a) describes the broad right to inspect or copy public records in Florida:
Every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state, or persons acting on their behalf, except with respect to records exempted under this section or specifically made confidential by this Constitution.
The Appeals Court says older laws can be altered by newer laws, and residents’ overwhelming support of the state’s Marsy’s Law (61% of voters) suggests the state as a whole desired the new law to protect every criminal victim, even public servants charged with arresting suspected criminals.
The court says the police can police themselves. It does not need the assistance of the public that has been locked out by this use of the victims’ rights law.
This does not mean that the public cannot hold law enforcement officers accountable for any misconduct. Maintaining confidential information about a law enforcement officer who is a crime victim would not halt an internal affairs investigation nor impede any grand jury proceedings. Nor would it prevent a state attorney from reviewing the facts and considering whether the officer was a victim. If a prosecutor determines that the officer was not a victim and instead charges the officer for his conduct, then the officer would forfeit the protections…
But these are all state and local actions that — while nominally performed to benefit the public — rarely involve direct public participation or result in outcomes that approach any widely understood definition of “accountability.”
This may be the correct ruling inasmuch as that’s what the law says. But it’s certainly not keeping with the spirit of the law, which was supposed to protect crime victims, not shield public employees from accountability. Legislators who’ve enacted these laws around the nation need to amend them to ensure this sort of abuse ceases.