A Florida appellate court has ruled unanimously that police officers involved in violent confrontations are entitled to the same privacy protections as crime victims — even if they respond with deadly force.
“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 Appeal wrote in a 13-page decision released on 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.’”
The ruling by the three-judge panel was a victory for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which went to bat for two Tallahassee police officers after a Leon County judge ruled in July that the victim privacy protections, known as Marsy’s Law, did not apply to law enforcement officers “acting in their official capacities.”
“Just because someone wears a badge doesn’t mean they can’t be a victim, doesn’t mean they aren’t,” said Danny Alvarez, the spokesperson for the Tampa Police Benevolent Association.
Alvarez said the court’s decision will not stymie public inquires or 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.
Mark Caramanica, a Tampa attorney who represented the news organizations that joined the Tallahassee First Amendment Foundation in challenging the Tallahassee Police Department’s refusal to release the names of the officers, said the court ruling “was an unfortunate setback for police accountability.”
“We respectfully disagree with the court’s reasoning and are considering our options,” Caramanica said.
The First Amendment Foundation noted that the appellate court ruling came as the nation was focused on the trial of Derek Chauvin, the fired Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd.
While The Tampa Bay Times characterized the lawsuit as the “first major test of whether Marsy’s Law conflicts” with Florida’s public records laws, NBC News legal analyst Danny Cevallos said the court 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.”
“Florida has a very liberal open records law,” Cevallos added. But “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 said.