By Monivette Cordeiro, Grace Toohey, and Crisótbal Reyes
April 9, 2021
First Amendment advocates say a Florida court ruling that hides from public view the identities of law enforcement officers who kill civilians under victim privacy protections would make it harder to hold police accountable and undermine public oversight.
The unanimous decision issued this week by the First District Court of Appeal determined that protections in Marsy’s Law, the crime victims’ rights amendment to the state Constitution approved by voters in 2018, also extends to cops who use deadly force in response to an alleged threat of violence against them.
The ruling comes almost a year after George Floyd died pleading for help while former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, sparking nationwide protests where activists demanded, among other things, greater police transparency.
Under Florida’s broad version of Marsy’s Law, Chauvin, who is currently facing trial, could claim he was a crime victim and have his identity concealed until he was charged in Floyd’s death, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
“Only by knowing Derek Chauvin’s name was the press and public able to research his record and find out that he had over a dozen other misconduct complaints on his record before George Floyd,” LoMonte said. “Without knowing those names, we can’t research the history of the officers involved in high-profile uses of force.”
But the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a statewide police union, celebrated the ruling as a victory for all crime victims, not just law enforcement officers.
“It was always bizarre to us that a person’s profession should be a reason someone wouldn’t be protected under the constitution,” said Stephanie Dobson Webster, general counsel for the Florida PBA. In 2018, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that cops also have protections under Florida’s infamous Stand Your Ground law, which a court justice wrote applies to them “whether on duty or off, and irrespective of whether the officer is making an arrest.”
The recent ruling on Marsy’s Law stemmed from two killings by Tallahassee police, including the fatal shooting of Tony McDade. The city wanted to disclose the names of the officers involved in the deadly force incidents but the officers and the Florida PBA sued to stop the public release under Marsy’s Law in circuit court.
Webster said it became particularly important for the officers’ identities to be protected because of the climate surrounding law enforcement last summer, which she called a “very volatile time.” Although their names were not publicly released, the Tallahassee officers still received death threats, some even at the scene of the shooting, which put them and their families in danger, she said.