Are We About to See a Wave of Police Using 'Victim's Rights' Laws to Keep Conduct Secret?

A second cop in South Dakota is keeping his name concealed from the public after a fatal shooting.



Yet again, a cop has invoked a law intended to shield the privacy of crime victims to keep his name from being released after he killed a suspect.

At the end of November, a Pennington County sheriff's deputy shot and killed Matthew John Lorenzen, 19, of Rapid City, South Dakota. According to police reports, Lorenzen led deputies on a chase and allegedly shot at them. Lorenzen then rolled his SUV into a ditch and, according to the sheriff's department, exited his vehicle holding the weapon, which prompted the deputy to shoot him.

The shooting is under investigation, and the deputy is on paid administrative leave. That deputy has also invoked privacy protections under what's known as "Marsy's Law" in order to prevent his name from being publicly released.

Marsy's Law is a "victims' rights" measure passed by South Dakota voters in 2016. Among many other things, it allows victims of crimes to control whether or not information about themselves gets publicly released. But the law is vague about who exactly is a crime victim. This deputy says he qualifies because Lorenzen reportedly shot at him.

A highway patrol officer in South Dakota did the same trick back in October. And officers in North Dakota, which has its own Marsy's Law, have pulled a similar move. Even though these cops are on the job working for the public, they're using this law to hide their own identities from the public.

Needless to say, that isn't what these laws are supposed to be for. But this misuse is one of several problems with these laws, which are spreading from state to state. Six were approved by ballot initiatives this past November in Florida, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Georgia, Nevada, and North Carolina. Pennsylvania may pass one this year.

The law is named after Marsalee Nicholas, the sister of California billionaire Henry Nicholas. Marsalee was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983, and Henry has been bankrolling efforts to introduce these laws across the country. They're complicated regulations—the original version passed in California in 2008 defines 17 "rights" for victims of crime. They are partly intended to keep crime victims in the loop and potentially involved in decisions about sentencing of defendants.

These laws also have some components where people identified as victims have control over being interviewed or deposed in these cases and control over the public release of information. That crime victims can have the power to withhold information and refuse interviews in criminal cases is big concern in itself, at least for those of us who want to make sure that defense attorneys are adequately able to access what they need to defend their clients. That part of these bills treats defendants as though they're guilty before they've even been convicted.

But once police officers are able to start invoking Marsy's Law while doing their job, we're going to see some even bigger problems. These laws do not even state what types of crimes one must be a victim of to invoke the law. So far we've only seen cops use it in cases of fatal shootings, but in theory, if this interpretation stands, an officer could claim to be a "victim" of somebody accused of resisting arrest. There could be some serious consequences down the line for the ability of attorneys (both the prosecution and the defense) and even within police departments in trying to investigate cases that involve violence either by or against police officers.

As the American Civil Liberties Union points out:

If police are considered victims under Marsy's Law every time they are involved in a police shooting, a hostile arrest, or similar situation, officers would have the right to withhold their name from the public and avoid answering questions from the press or, even more disconcerting, from defense counsel. Given the sweeping right to refuse an interview, it's worth considering whether Marsy's Law could be invoked by an officer to refuse an interview by their own internal affairs investigators.

Our objections to this interpretation of victims' rights goes beyond the ACLU's previously stated concerns about granting victims a constitutional right to refuse discovery requests. Enabling police to withhold information from defendants and defense counsels could strike an even greater blow to a defendant's constitutional right to see evidence that could prove the defendant's innocence.

Moreover, it is exactly in situations of police violence that the public interest in transparency is the most heightened….When they are involved in arrests, shootings, or other law enforcement activities, they are doing so on behalf of the taxpayer and using taxpayer money. There are different expectations of transparency and public access to information.

It's hard enough to hold police accountable. Many union rules already give police special protections that control the timeframe of interviews while their behavior is being investigated. We need less secrecy surrounding police conduct in violent encounters, not more.

NEXT: The Number of Men in Federal Prison for Viewing or Sharing Child Pornography Has Nearly Septupled Since 2004

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  1. We’ve seen over the past few years that people are mining power from victimhood. And the less legitimate the status, the more power to be found.

  2. The police should be held accountable for overstepping the line, but also protected from those who would just pull the race card in an instance of justified force…

  3. Law’s named after people are rarely good laws.

    1. True.

      They seem even more prone to falling prey to the law of unintended consequences, too.

  4. Paging Paul Cassell…

  5. A highway patrol officer in South Dakota did the same trick back in October. And officers in North Dakota, which has its own Marsy’s Law, have pulled a similar move. Even though these cops are on the job working for the public, they’re using this law to hide their own identities from the public.

    When you say “they’re using this law” what you mean to say is the Union Lawyers have figured this out.

  6. 1. Good journalism by Scott.
    2. Special collectivized rights? I’d crush them underfoot!
    3. Then again, not so fast! We already sacrificed the 4th and 5th, 6th and 9th Amendments on the altar of Prohibition and the Manifesto Income Tax, so why not bring THEM back and abolish asset forfeiture instead of keeping the Rich Bitch Dry Killer protective law?

  7. Call it a Secondary Ferguson effect, police don’t want to be identified and targeted by activists.

    1. Bingo. Whatever the obligate unintended consequences of the law, a cop in this situation would be an idiot not to invoke it.

    2. Trying to link it to Ferguson is a stretch, and police have been able to evade accountability for misconduct for a long time.

      1. It’s not just evading accountability legally and professionally, it’s about avoiding the crosshairs of the Micah Johnsons, the more extreme elements and adjuncts of BLM, as well as the scorn of public opinion in general. Remember these “social justice” movements tend to favor the pitchforks over the gavel, which is no better than the bully cops in the end.

  8. It was an event that happened in public. Surely someone knows, and might anonymously let it out of the bag? C’mon resistance, resist.

  9. If you pulled the trigger and someone died – you’re not a victim. *That’s the point of having the gun.*

    1. Exactly Ag.

    2. If someone else pulled the trigger and you didn’t die, you still could be a victim. I don’t like the policy implications, but it’s hardly an unreasonable reading of the law. Had Lorenzen survived, it’s likely he would have been charged with shooting at the officers. And in a non-officer involved self defense situation, I’m pretty sure the shooter is still considered the victim.

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