Police Abuse

Florida Supreme Court Rules Police Can't Use Marsy's Law To Hide Names of Officers Who Shoot People

"Marsy's Law guarantees to no victim—police officer or otherwise—the categorical right to withhold his or her name from disclosure," the Florida Supreme Court ruled.


Police departments in Florida will no longer be able to hide the names of officers who shoot people under Marsy's Law, a 2018 state constitutional amendment expanding rights for crime victims, following a Florida Supreme Court ruling Thursday.

The Florida Supreme Court held that "Marsy's Law guarantees to no victim—police officer or otherwise—the categorical right to withhold his or her name from disclosure."

The court's decision to extend its ruling to not only police but all crime victims is broader than any of the interest groups involved—police departments and unions, transparency and media organizations, and victim rights groups—expected, and the Miami Herald reported that it is likely to lead to legislation being introduced to tweak the language of Marsy's Law.

Although transparency advocates and civil rights groups warned that versions of Marsy's Law were already being abused by police in other states to hide names of officers, Florida voters approved the amendment by roughly 62 percent and became one of six states that year to pass a Marsy's Law amendment.

The law was named after Marsy Nicholas, a California woman who was stalked and murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Nicholas' family has worked since then to pass laws expanding victims' rights, first in California and then in several other states. 

The case before the Florida Supreme Court stemmed from two fatal police shootings in Tallahassee in 2020. After reporters filed records requests for the names of the officers involved, the Florida Police Benevolent Association filed a lawsuit against the city to prevent disclosure, arguing that the identities of the officers were confidential under a provision of Marsy's Law that protects "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."

But the Florida Supreme Court disagreed. "One's name, standing alone, is not that kind of information or record," Florida Supreme Court Justice John D. Couriel wrote. "It communicates nothing about where the individual can be found and bothered."

Opposing police secrecy were media organizations, civil rights groups, and even supporters of Marsy's Law.

"When reviewing the conduct of an on-duty law enforcement officer who has used physical force, the right to privacy of their name must quickly yield to the public's right to know," Marsy's Law for Florida told the Tallahassee Democrat in October.

But it yielded neither quickly nor graciously in Florida, where police departments frequently abused the vague language to hide incriminating or embarrassing information. For example, last year, the Sarasota Sheriff's Office and state attorney's office convinced a judge to issue a temporary injunction blocking a local newspaper from printing the names of officers who shot and killed a man during an eviction. (That order was quickly voided because, as Walter Sobchak reminded us, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint.)

In another case last year, the Marion County Sheriff's Office invoked Marsy's Law to attempt to shield the identities of six jail deputies involved in the death of Scott Whitley, a mentally ill man who died during a violent cell extraction after being bumrushed, tased, and pepper-sprayed.

"Although the deputies clearly violated Scotty's rights under the Fourteenth Amendment when they attacked and killed him, they claimed that they were instead victims of a crime perpetrated by Scotty and used Marsy's Law in an effort to hide from accountability for their wrongdoing," says James Slater, an attorney representing Whitley's family. "We applaud the Florida Supreme Court's ruling yesterday, which will put an end to this perverse use of the law."