TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — While the Florida Supreme Court remains in the process of weighing how Florida’s law protecting the privacy of crime victims applies to law enforcement officers in the line of duty, a Sarasota judge has ruled in favor of the press.
The Sarasota County Sheriff sued the Sarasota Herald-Tribune over their release of the deputies’ names, which they received from the the state attorney’s office by mistake, according to the paper’s reporting on the legal case.
Judge Charles Williams, 12th Circuit, ruled in favor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on First Amendment grounds, saying the law does not block them from publishing the names of deputies involved in the death of county man Jeremiah Evans.
Deputies shot Evans, killing him, as he approached them with a knife, according to previous reporting, citing SCSO.
Following the judge’s ruling, Sarasota Sheriff Kurt Hoffman released a statement on the decision. The next day, he held a news conference to further discuss his position.
“The first district court of appeals has already ruled it applies to law-enforcement, the supreme court will ultimately decide that. I think with Judge Williams was trying to resolve here and what we were trying to get resolved and this is the only case that I am aware of that has resolved the issue is if there is an Inadvertent release of the information Or if there is some of those journalistic method by which you get the information not as a result of the victimization of the officer, is that allowed?” Hoffman said at the conference.
While the eviction, and subsequent use of force, are the origin of the case, the true issue central to Judge Williams’ ruling is Marsy’s Law. Passed in 2018, Marsy’s Law was approved by voters as a ballot measure, Amendment 6. It took effect in 2019.
Shortly after, application of the law became a source of confusion in the state. Some law enforcement agencies began protecting the identities of not just victims of crimes, but the officers who responded to them.
Due to what has been described as ambiguous wording, some law enforcement advocates have argued that by responding to criminal activity, officers themselves may be considered victims.
On the flip side, those in support of identifying law enforcement argue that the issue is one of transparency, with potentially wide-reaching applications.
“Nothing in Marsy’s Law says that a law-enforcement officer can be a victim in these circumstances. I don’t think it is an easy question in my view,” Michael Barfield, Director of Public Access from the Florida Center for Government Accountability said. “If it applies to law-enforcement, it applies to anyone, it could apply to anyone who’s car is keyed in a parking lot. They can say ‘I am a victim, don’t ever disclose my name publicly’.”
Barfield went further, saying that victims of crime deserve protection from harassment, but should not get immunity from investigative research.
“You have a right not to be bothered, but you don’t have a right to not have your name published,” Barfield said. “That illustrates the problem with Marsy’s Law and the unilateral determination by the person who determines themselves to be a victim. If in a spousal domestic violence situation, one spouse kills another, and if there are prior incidents of domestic violence, the media could never tell the public about that…I always say the First Amendment is first for a reason.”
The application and its effect on news reporting is of particular relevance in the cases of officer-involved shootings, such as the death of Evans in Sarasota County. It’s also a question that Florida’s Supreme Court is working on answering, with a current case in the state’s highest court still in progress. While law enforcement leaders themselves remain divided on the topic, Judge Williams ruled in favor of the Herald-Tribune for the Sarasota case.
Williams wrote in his latest ruling that while protecting the privacy and safety of victims was “highly significant,” referencing U.S. Supreme Court case The Florida Star v. B. J. F, such concern “did not outweigh the newspaper’s First Amendment right to publish truthful information about a matter of public concern that was not obtained through the newspaper’s unlawful conduct.”
Due to the initial identification of deputies’ last names being provided by the state, even in error, Williams ruled in favor of the newspaper’s right to publish the information, which was not obtained through criminal or illegal activity by the publication.
Williams ruled “the course of the deputies’ service of a writ of possession is unquestionably a matter of public concern,” where SCSO was sent to evict Evans from a residence he had not leased and was “squatting in” according to officials, the apartment in question belonged to a deceased tenant.
When three SCSO deputies arrived at the apartment to remove Evans, he “lunged forward” with a knife. Deputies reportedly attempted to use a taser to subdue him, to no effect. One of the deputies then shot Evans, killing him.
The Herald-Tribune identified the deputies after receiving public records responses from the 12th Circuit State Attorney’s Office. After digging into the information, according to the Herald-Tribune’s reporting, they identified the deputies. Then Hoffman sued to prevent further identification efforts.
Previous steps in the legal process enjoined a block on the names being used in publications. With Williams’ ruling on Monday, the decision is currently reversed, allowing the names to be public.
In a response posted online after the ruling, the Sarasota Sheriff released a statement, saying that he “greatly respects” the judge, and promising to “abide by his ruling,” despite his belief on the application of Marsy’s Law.
“While I have my personal opinion about the application of Marsy’s Law to law enforcement officers who are victims of crime, we believed, based on the plain reading, that we needed to proceed forward and get this issue resolved,” Hoffman’s statement on Tuesday read. “The issue has now been resolved in this circuit.”