Miami Herald by Sean Murphy
January 25, 2019
A Florida police chief’s decision not to release the names of some of the five women killed in a bank shooting this week represents the first high-profile test of a law being enacted in several states that pits victim privacy against the public’s right to know.
The police chief in Sebring, Florida, declined to release the names of some of the slain women, citing a provision in the “Marsy’s Law” amendment to the state constitution that voters approved in November. Florida’s law specifically allows crime victims to prevent the disclosure of information that could be used to locate or harass them or their families.
“Is it really necessary for the public to have the names of all five victims to understand what’s happening down there and what’s going on?” said Paul Cassell, a victim’s rights expert and a professor at the University of Utah who supported the Florida law. “I don’t think there’s a public interest in the specific names of the victims in the immediate aftermath, so I think the law is working as it’s intended and having a beneficial effect for families that are grieving right now.”
But allowing crime victims to determine what information gets released to the public sets a dangerous precedent, said Barbara Petersen of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. Petersen maintains police are misinterpreting the new provisions in a way that could deal a major blow to the public’s right to information about its government.
“How do we hold law enforcement accountable? Are we going to start having secret trials, crime victims testifying behind curtains?” Petersen asked.
She said state legislators need to provide clarity and ensure the amendment does not conflict with Florida’s broad public records access laws, and that the privacy provision could end up being challenged in court.
“It is going to have to be resolved,” Petersen said.
Beyond the concerns of open government advocates, law enforcement officials in some states say Marsy’s Law could hinder their ability to solve crimes if they can’t release some details to the public.
Voters in South Dakota ultimately chose to fix Marsy’s Law after the original proposal approved in 2016 curtailed the information law enforcement agencies were able to release to the public. The new changes require victims to opt in to many of their rights and specifically allow authorities to share information with the public.