Appeals court rules officers involved in Florida shootings are crime victims, covered by victim protection laws

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TALLAHASSEE, FL- Chalk one up for the good guys.

A Florida appellate court issued a ruling in favor of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, a decision which ordered that the names of Tallahassee police officers involved in shootings must be kept private under something called Marsy’s Law, WTXL is reporting.

 Previously, the trial court had determined that the “protections afforded crime victims under Article I, Section 16 were unavailable to law enforcement officers even when a crime suspect threatened an officer with deadly force.”

The appellate court order reverses that court’s decision. The ruling also reverses the trial court’s decision that Marsy’s Law cannot apply to officers when acting in their official capacities.

“That the officer acts in self-defense to that threat does not defeat the officers’ status as a crime victim,” Judge Lori Rowe of the 1st District Court of Appeals wrote in a 13-page decision released last Tuesday.

“And thus as a crime victim, such an officer has the right to keep confidential ‘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 on the victim.”

 

Marsy’s Law was named for a victim who was killed by her ex-boyfriend, and gives crime victims the right to receive notifications of all legal proceedings involving the accused, the right to privacy, the right to be heard, and the right to protection from harassment. 

NBC News reported a spokesperson for the Tampa Police Benevolent Association praised the court’s ruling.

“Just because someone wears a badge doesn’t mean they can’t be a victim, doesn’t mean they aren’t,” said spokesman Danny Alvarez.

He continued that he didn’t believe the courts decision will in any way impact public inquiries, nor prevent investigations of police shootings.

“Grand juries can still be called if there’s any suspicion of wrongdoing as well as internal affairs investigations, Alvarez said.

Marsy’s Law was designed to give crime victims “meaningful and enforceable constitutional rights equal to the rights of the accused.

In response to the court’s decision, the City of Tallahassee released the following statement on behalf of City Attorney Cassandra K. Jackson:

“As always, the City of Tallahassee respects the deliberations and decision of the First District Court of Appeals. The Court has determined that police officers, when acting within the scope of their public duties, are afforded the protections of Marsy’s Law as crime victims.

The City will carefully review the Court’s decision in evaluating whether to appeal.”

The city’s First Amendment Foundation expressed disappointment with the court’s ruling in the case, Florida Police Benevolent Association, Inc., et al. v. City of Tallahassee, Florida.

“Across the country, cities and states are increasing access to law enforcement records when officers use force or are accused of misconduct,” said Pamela Marsh, executive director of the FAF.

“For the first time in Minnesota, cameras are allowed in a courtroom to document the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused in the death of George Floyd. Other states are mandating disclosure of records on police shootings, use of excessive force, and confirmed instances of lying. Florida is moving in the opposite direction.

This ruling can only undermine the public’s belief that law enforcement will ever be held accountable for serious misconduct.”

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Other people were also displeased with the decision.

Mark Caramanica, a Tampa attorney who represented news organizations which had joined with the FAF in challenging the police department’s refusal to release the names of officers involved in the shootings called the court ruling “an unfortunate setback for police accountability.”

“W respectfully disagree with the court’s reasoning and are considering our options, Caramanica said.

The Tampa Bay Times had called the lawsuit the “first major test of whether Marsy’s Law was in conflict with Florida’s public record, or “Sunshine” laws.

A legal analyst for NBC News, Danny Cevallos said the court’s ruling “is not a complete bar to ever learning the identity of the officers.”

“This ruling does not mean that, for example, a state attorney can’t look at the case,” Cevallos said. “It does not prevent a grand jury to look into the incident…it allows for a lot of internal affairs investigations.”

He added, “Florida has a very liberal open records law, while noting that “victims of crime can keep their records confidential to avoid harassment or other information that might be damaging to them.

“As crime victim is defined, police officers who are confronted with deadly force, whether or not they use lethal force to defend themselves, are considered within the definition of crime victim,” Cevallos continued.

The backstory on the decision involves three officer-involved shootings by Tallahassee police officers in 2020.

In one case, a Tallahassee officer killed Mychael Johnson last March 20. In that case, the officer claimed that Johnson was resisting arrest. That officer’s identity was later released.

The second incident, which occurred on May 19 saw a Tallahassee officer shoot a man named Wilbon Cleveland, who came at him with a knife.

Finally, on May 27, another Tallahassee officer shot a man named Tony McDade, claiming he did so after McDade pulled a gun on him.

Last July 24, a Leon County judge ruled that officers who shoot and kill suspects are not permitted to use Marsy’s Law to conceal their identities.

The officers’ attorneys appealed the ruling, with the city attorney claiming under Sunshine Laws that those names had to be released, which left Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dobson to issue his decision.

Each officer in the three separate cases claimed they were themselves victimized by attacks from the suspects.

“The officer is a victim, just like anybody else in this situation so Marsy’s Law kicks in,” Said Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell. “The officer is afforded the same rights as any other victim.’

Last Sept. 4, a Leon County grand jury ruled that none of the three officers involved in the shootings would be charged.

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