(Update) As the Phoenix reported last month, there’s been confusion among Florida law enforcement agencies about how to comply with “Marsy’s Law,” a victims’ rights measure that voters enshrined in the state Constitution last November.
Advocates for public information and media access say the law is shielding too much information from public view. Some law enforcement agencies are withholding all information about victims, which makes it difficult for outside observers to evaluate police actions during criminal incidents.
State Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat, has filed legislation which she says will ensure “consistent application” of the law.
“Florida voters have spoken loudly and clearly in favor of equal rights for victims of crime,” Book says in a statement. “My bill will ensure that everyone in the justice system is on the same page and working together to respect crime victims’ rights and keep them safe from further harm.”
One of the issues about the new law: how much information law enforcement agencies can release when it comes to protecting the victims’ of a crime. Part of the amendment says a victim has the right to prevent disclosure of confidential or privileged information that could be used to locate or harass a victim or their family.
Some law enforcement agencies are now opting to withhold any victim information after a crime has been committed. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, speaking on behalf of the Florida Sheriffs Association, has said that he believes that unless the victim requests that the information not be released, then law enforcement agencies are free to publish it. But the application of that provision is not being enforced uniformly throughout the state.
While not specifically addressing the media’s responsibility, Book’s bill says that an arresting law enforcement officer who provides assistance to a victim would have to give the victim or next of kin a card with their contact information, but they could opt out. Unless a victim or next of kin opts out, a copy would need to be filed with the incident report.
“The victim notification card is confidential unless the court makes all or part of the information on the card available to the defense,” reads that section of the bill.
Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation based in Tallahassee, expressed surprise that the bill doesn’t provide clarity regarding whether crime victims’ are automatically granted confidentiality or they have to ask for it first.
On Thursday evening, a spokesperson for Senator Book send this statement:
“Specific language regarding the confidentiality of personally identifiable information that could be used to locate or harass a victim was not included in the implementing bill as it is already addressed in the Marsy’s Law for Florida language that was placed in the state constitution. That language is clear and straightforward. In today’s day and age with information so readily available through a quick Google search, the public disclosure of a victim’s name provides anyone with a means to locate that person. The police departments in Tampa, Tallahassee and Sebring have been appropriately interpreting the constitutional language and we encourage other law enforcement agencies to automatically protect a victim’s name unless he/she chooses to have it publicly disclosed.”