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Court Says Officers Involved In Shooting Are Crime Victims, Identities Protected By Victim Protection Laws

Tallahassee, FL – A Florida appeals court ruled Tuesday that the identities of Tallahassee police officers involved in shootings do not have to be released to the public.

The case began after three separate officer-involved shootings occurred in a little over two months in the spring of 2020, WTXL reported.

Activists and the media demanded the city release the names of the officers who had fired their weapons but the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) filed a lawsuit that claimed the officers were protected from exposure under Florida’s Marsy’s Law.

Marsy’s Law, named for a victim who was killed by her ex-boyfriend, was passed in 2018 and gave crime victims the right to receive notifications of all legal proceedings involving the accused, the right to privacy, the right to be heard, and the right to protection from harassment.

The union also alleged in its lawsuit that the city had changed its transparency policies after the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police, WJXT reported.

The city has denied changing the policy and pointed the finger at the Tallahassee Police Department.

The case became the first major test of whether Marsy’s Law conflicted with the Florida state constitution, which has some of the nation’s broadest open records laws, WJXT reported.

Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled in July of 2020 that the “explicit language of Marsy’s Law was not intended to apply to law enforcement officers when acting in their official capacity” and ordered the city to release the officers’ names.

The PBA immediately appealed, WJXT reported.

Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell stood behind his officers’ desire for anonymity.

“The officer is a victim just like anybody else in this situation so Marsy’s Law kicks in,” Chief Revell said. “The officer is afforded the same rights as any other victim.”

On Sept. 4, 2020, a Leon County grand jury declined to charge any of the three officers involved in the shootings referenced in the lawsuit, WTXL reported.

On April 6, Florida First District Court of Appeals Judge Lori Rowe wrote in the court’s decision that no conflict existed because nothing in the constitutional amendment that enacted Marsy’s Law “excludes law enforcement officers – or other government employees – from the protections granted crime victims.”

Rowe was joined by Florida First District Court of Appeals Judges Timothy Osterhaus and Robert Long in her ruling, WJXT reported.

Under the appeals court’s ruling, Rowe wrote that a police officer “meets the definition of a crime victim” under Marsy’s Law “when a crime suspect threatens the officer with deadly force, placing the officer in fear for his life.”

“That the officer acts in self-defense to that threat does not defeat the officer’s status as a crime victim,” the ruling read. “And thus as a crime victim, such an officer has the right to keep confidential ‘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.’”

The appeals court held that Dodson’s earlier ruling “carved out an exemption” from Marsy’s Law “that would apply equally to all of Florida’s state and local government employees, numbering over 1 million,” WJXT reported.

Rowe wrote that “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.”

Big Bend PBA President Richard Murphy celebrated the appeals court’s ruling, WCTV reported.

“We’re excited about this protection,” Murphy said. “We’re humans, we’re part of the community just like everyone else, and we deserve the same protections.”

“This is a supercharged environment, I mean you don’t know what might happen,” the union boss continued. “Officers’ lives were being threatened, being threatened online, and they need their identities protected. This is a protection passed by the state, and this is what it was meant to do.”

Some in the Florida law enforcement community disagreed with giving privacy protections to police officers, WJXT reported.

“I don’t believe that it’s appropriate for law enforcement officers in the course and scope of their employment, acting under color of law, to have their names and their personal information withheld. I don’t think that was the intent,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said last year. “I don’t think it’s the right thing.”

Sheriff Gualtieri is also an attorney, WJXT reported.

Tallahassee City Attorney Cassandra Jackson said the city was considering its options, WCTV reported.

“As always, the City of Tallahassee respects the deliberations and decision of the First District Court of Appeal. The Court has determined that police officers, when acting within the scope of their public duties, are afforded the protections of Marsy’s law as crime victims. The City will carefully review the Court’s decision in evaluating whether to appeal,” Jackson wrote in a statement.

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Written by
Sandy Malone

Managing Editor - Twitter/@SandyMalone_ - Prior to joining The Police Tribune, Sandy wrote the Politics.Net column for the Wall Street Journal and was managing editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. More recently, she was an internationally-syndicated columnist for Conde Nast (BRIDES), The Huffington Post, and Monsters and Critics. Sandy is married to a retired police captain and former SWAT commander.

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