Why 'Florida Man' is a thing: Weirdness in other states goes unnoticed

Gil Smart

So the new thing is to Google "Florida Man" and your birthday, and see which nutty story comes up.

Here's mine:

"Florida man uses fake ID, steals $41K in dental implants, $10K for French bulldog."

Because if I have 51 grand in ill-gotten gains lying around, I'm headed straight for the dentist — maybe stopping off at the pet store on the way.

We're tempted to say this type of thing happens only in Florida. That's why "Florida Man" is a thing, right?

Well, yes and no.

Florida definitely has more than its share of oddballs, bumbling would-be criminals and drunken buffoons. But I hail from Pennsylvania, and let me tell you, the Keystone State is no slouch in this regard.

So why is "Florida Man" a thing, but "Pennsylvania Man" isn't?

Three words: public records laws.

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Florida has one of the most robust public records laws in the nation. Documents, photos, even videos created by a public agency are readily available — with some notable exceptions (and here I'm thinking of the video of New England Patriots' owner Robert Kraft in that massage parlor).

Police agencies routinely make all this available to the news media. I was added to the distribution list for one local police agency without even asking to be; now I get daily arrest reports via email.

Why there isn't a 'Pennsylvania Man'

Let me tell you how this process often worked in Pennsylvania.

Reporter: Officer, can I get a copy of the arrest report?

Officer: No.

Well, OK, it wasn't quite that blatant. But Pennsylvania's open records laws permit law enforcement to withhold information if it's considered a record of a criminal investigation. And that was often the rationale: We can't give you the arrest report because ... it's part of the investigation.

Some agencies — and here I'm looking at you, City of Lancaster Police Department — took it to ridiculous extremes. On a typical Saturday night, this is how it worked.

Editor: Did you get anything from the city?

Reporter: They said the printer was down.

Editor: Can't they email the arrest reports?

Reporter: They said there's a problem with the computers.

Whether police didn't want to give us the info or it was just too much of a bother, I never knew. Sometimes we did get reports, but no one in the newsroom knew how much was being released, what was being withheld and why.

I knew some cops who said arrest reports could be withheld for a variety of reasons — the mood of the desk sergeant, even the perception that the accused might be embarrassed if the report got out.

Other agencies did provide arrest reports. Usually. And in almost all cases, if the cops wanted you to have the report — if it made them look good, if it was a big enough case — you'd get it.

But bottom line, Pennsylvania's open records laws were and are pathetic. And that's just the way it is.

'Florida Man' is uniquely ... Floridian

When I came to Florida and realized what journalists could get, I was astonished.

You mean, law enforcement provides you with this info as a matter of course, without complaining or throwing roadblocks in your way or claiming it's crucial info in an investigation?

Yep.

And this, more than any other reason, is why "Florida Man" exists.

It feeds on itself: The Florida media get the info and run the stories. The stories get noticed, they feed the "Florida Man" narrative, so we're on the lookout for ever-more Florida Man stories.

Our public records laws being what they are, there's always more grist for the mill.

It's funny, but it's not always funny. Mental illness surely plays a role in some Florida Man stories.

And there's a clear class aspect to it: We're laughing at working-class travails, basically.

So there's reason to take the Florida Man phenomenon with a grain or three of salt.

Then again, on Feb. 25 came what could be my favorite recent Florida Man story, out of Palm Beach County: "Florida Man Steals $33,000 Worth of Rare Coins, Cashes Them in CoinStar Machine for $29.30."

If Feb. 25 is your birthday — I declare you the winner.

Gil Smart is a columnist at Treasure Coast (Florida) Newspapers, where this column first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter: @TCPalmGilSmart.

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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Why 'Florida Man' is a thing: Weirdness in other states goes unnoticed