TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida appellate court unanimously ruled the state's Marsy's Law that shields the identities of those impacted by crimes also applies to law enforcement officers in use-of-force situations.
The decision was centered on a deadly incident on May 27, 2020, when a Tallahassee Police Department officer shot and killed 38-year-old Natosha Tony McDade. Police responded after McDade stabbed the son of a next-door neighbor to death, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
The city of Tallahassee was to publicly release the officer's name, in addition to another officer involved in a separate case, the newspaper reported. But the Florida Police Benevolent Association sued the city, arguing the officers were impacted by aggravated assaults and were entitled to privacy protections provided by the 2018 voter-backed constitutional amendment, or Marsy's Law.
The three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed with the police union, reversing a July circuit court ruling by previous Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson who ordered the city to release the names of the officers in the interest of both holding government accountable and protecting victims' rights, according to WFSU.
The judges reiterated the amendment's definition of a "crime victim," meaning "...a person who suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime..." and stated a police officer falls under that definition when their life is threatened.
"That the officer acts in self-defense to that threat does not defeat the officer’s status as a crime victim," the 13-page opinion reads, in part.
"Nothing in article I, section 16 [of the Florida Constitution] excludes law enforcement officers—or other government employees—from the protections granted crime victims," Judge Lori Rowe wrote, concurred by judges Robert Long and Timothy Osterhaus.
The police union was pleased with the order, with attorney Stephen Webster telling the Tallahassee Democrat that officers shouldn't be excluded from Marsy's Law "simply because they choose to patrol our streets and keep us safe."
The city of Tallahassee hasn't yet decided whether to appeal.
The newspaper joined several media organizations, including the Florida Press Association, the Miami Herald Media Company and the New York Times Company, in filing a motion to intervene in the case between the city and the police union. The outlets argued information about officers' use of deadly force is of "crucial public importance."
"Today’s decision was an unfortunate setback for police accountability," lawyer Mark Caramanica, who represents the media organizations, said in a prepared statement published by WFSU. "We respectfully disagree with the court’s reasoning and are considering our options."
The First Amendment Foundation, which filed the motion joined by media organizations, in a statement said Florida is moving backward compared to other states on the issue of increasing access to law enforcement records.
"This ruling can only undermine the public's belief that law enforcement will ever be held accountable for serious misconduct," said Pamela Mars, the organization's executive director. "Transparency is everything when it comes to trust."
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