Marsy's Law

Florida Officials Use a Victim's Rights Law To Stop a Newspaper from Printing Deputies' Names

They shot and killed a man they were trying to evict. Doesn’t the public have the right to know who they are?


Florida deputies shot and killed a man during an eviction process, and now a judge is prohibiting a local newspaper from printing the names of the officers involved.

You can blame Florida's Marsy's Law for this unconstitutional censorship. These laws, passed through the ballot initiative process in a dozen states, were intended to detail certain rights for crime victims to be informed about criminal cases and protect their privacy. But in practice, the wording of the laws are often vague enough that police departments have been using them to conceal information about shootings their officers are involved with by classifying the officers as "victims" of crimes.

In Sarasota County, three deputies were sent to a condo in April to help evict 52-year-old Jeremiah Evans. According to Sarasota County Sheriff Department's report, Evans pulled out a knife and threatened the deputies. One of the deputies shot and killed Evans.

Prosecutors determined that the shooting was justified. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune submitted a public records request to the State Attorney's Office, and among the information they received were the unredacted last names of the deputies involved.

Then the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office swung into action, going to a judge to invoke Marsy's Law to try to prohibit the newspaper from publishing the names of the officers involved. On Friday evening a judge granted a temporary injunction preemptively prohibiting the newspaper from publishing the officers' names. Despite failing to redact the names by accident, the State Attorney's Office also supported the sheriff's department and joined the action against the newspaper, essentially attempting to shift responsibility onto the newspaper for the office's own supposed breach of the law.

Florida's Marsy's Law has its own definition of who counts as a victim, and that's part of the problem: "[A] 'victim' is a person who suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime or delinquent act or against whom the crime or delinquent act is committed." This definition does not require anybody to actually be convicted of a crime in order for a person to be classified as a "victim" for the purposes of Marsy's Law because part of the law is intended to control how a victim is treated throughout the entire process, even prior to a trial. It also does not exclude police officers or other government officials who may be involved in investigating or responding to criminal activities as part of their job.

One of the rights granted by Florida's Marsy's Law is "The right to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim's family, or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim." Because Marsy's Law does not exempt police officers responding to criminal activity, law enforcement agencies have been using the law to insist they cannot release the names of officers who are involved in responses to crimes, even when the police response is itself violent and people have questions or concerns about what happened, and even when it's possible that the suspect may himself or herself be the victim of police abuse. And the wording of the law does not care that the person accused of the crime in this case is himself dead and cannot harass the officers or the officers' family.

It also shouldn't be the case that the law has the authority to censor what newspapers publish, what with the First Amendment explicitly forbidding the government from doing so, but nevertheless, Fridays' order blocks the Herald-Tribune from publishing the officers' names. The newspaper is fighting the order as unconstitutional prior restraint of the press.

"Freedom of speech means that it's up to the Herald-Tribune to decide whether to report information in its possession, especially facts about such a significant matter as a fatal shooting by law enforcement," said James B. Lake, one of the attorneys hired by the newspaper to fight the injunction. "We fully expect that, once our arguments are heard, the injunction will be set aside."

The names of police officers involved in deadly incidents on the job are not supposed to be kept secret from the public. It's one of the many, many flaws with these Marsy's Laws.