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.