TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A complicated question remains before the Florida Supreme Court. In the scope of their duties, are police officers victims of crimes when they’re on the clock? Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood says no, they’re not in his latest filing for the court case.
Chitwood, a registered independent and now two-term sheriff, has been in law enforcement for more than three decades, according to his official statement to the Florida Supreme Court. He was police chief in Daytona Beach for 10 years, chief of police in Shawnee, Okla., for one. Chitwood served as a lieutenant in the Philadelphia Police Department. In Florida, he was elected sheriff of Volusia in 2016, then reelected in 2020.
As sheriff, Chitwood “employs more than 800 personnel, including approximately 400 sworn deputies.”
He’s a law enforcement leader who continues to argue against privacy protections for police officers as a result of Marsy’s Law, which passed by ballot vote in 2018 as Amendment 6.
According to his amicus brief in support of the city of Tallahassee and the various allied media companies involved in the Marsy’s Law lawsuit, Chitwood believes modern policing “requires transparency and accountability from law enforcement and its leaders.” His brief said those two factors are essential to rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the public.
Hiding the identities of law enforcement officers by “extending the protections of Marsy’s Law” to those performing official duties would erode, instead of rebuild, public trust, according to Chitwood.
“A law enforcement officer who uses deadly force while performing official duties was never contemplated and should never be considered a ‘victim’ under Marsy’s Law,” Chitwood’s statement to the court says. “Marsy’s Law was designed to further public trust in the criminal justice system, not to erode it.”
Part of Chitwood’s arguments against the Florida Benevolent Police Association, the state’s largest officers’ union, are also based on the state’s legal definition of a victim, which was included in Marsy’s Law.
A person who suffers direct or threatened physical, psychological, or financial harm as a result of the commission or attempted commission of a crime or delinquent act or against whom the crime or delinquent act is committed. The term “victim” includes the victim’s lawful representative, the parent or guardian of a minor, or the next of kin of a homicide victim, except upon a showing that the interest of such individual would be in actual or potential conflict with the interests of the victim. The term “victim” does not include the accused.Marsy’s Law, Aritcle I, section 16(e)
Chitwood says, by definition, a police officer in the course of their normal duties is not a victim of a crime. His brief echoes similar arguments made in court previously, by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
“Police are not ‘victims’ when they use force,” Gualtieri’s brief says. “A police officer who shoots and kills another is not a ‘victim’ of that shooting and cannot invoke Marsy’s Law to shroud his shooting in secrecy…Nothing in the plain text of Marsy’s Law defines anyone as a ‘victim’ when they use force.”
Chitwood’s and Gualtieri’s briefs were filed in the latest round of court proceedings, now in the appeals process, after Chief Judge Lori Rowe, from the First Circuit Court of Appeal, shot down an earlier filing from Leon County which removed the protections of Marsy’s Law for active duty officers in April 2021.
Rowe’s decision said that officers who act in self-defense to a threat do not remove their status as a crime victim. “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 of the victim,'” Rowe wrote in April.
Her decision reversed a decision by a Leon County trial judge who had said the law would not apply to law enforcement officers “acting in their official capacity.”
In December, the FSC agreed to hear the case. In the meantime, multiple cases of officer-involved shootings have redacted the names of officers from police documents, such as in Tarpon Springs in October, where the names were removed along with a note: “Redacted per Marsy’s Law.”
Now months and multiple briefs later, the case is moving forward. In a response to 8 On Your Side, the Florida Benevolent Police Association provided the following comments about the case.
The PBA’s and the officers’ legal positions are well rooted in the plain language of the Florida Constitution. The Florida Supreme Court has consistently held that police officers are “persons” within the meaning of Florida law. The Petitioners’ attempts to argue otherwise are misguided. The PBA and the officers fully expect to prevail on the merits.Statement from a FLPBA spokesperson