The Impact of Marsy’s Law on Police Accountability

August 10, 2021 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

Cases of Deadly Force in Tallahassee Lead us to Wonder if Marsy’s Law can Negatively Impact Police Accountability

What is Marsy’s Law?

Marsy’s Law provides victims of crime constitutional rights that are equal to the rights given to criminal defendants. The law is named after Marsalee Nicholas, a college student in California who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Unaware that Marsy’s killer had been released on bail, her family unexpectedly ran into him at a supermarket. The horrifying confrontation led to her family to fight for courts to consider the safety of victims and their families when setting bail and release conditions. In addition, it pushed for family members of victims to have legal standing in court proceedings such as hearings, pleas, sentencing, and parole hearings. If you would like to read more about Marsy’s Law and its history in Florida, you can do so here.

Deadly Force by Tallahassee Police & How it Relates to Marsy’s Law

Florida voters passed Marsy’s Law in late 2018 with over 61% of the vote. Although this was a momentous occasion for victim-advocates, the passing also lead to issues when it came to police accountability. Specifically, the issue centers around separate police shootings in Tallahassee that led to the death of Tony McDade on May 27, 2020, and Wilbon Cleveland Woodard on May 19, 2020.

McDade was a Black trans man who was a suspect in a stabbing that had taken place earlier in the day. Many issues surround the shooting, including whether police used racial slurs when trying to apprehend McDade or if McDade appeared to be carrying a weapon. On September 3, 2020, a Leon County grand jury found that the deadly use of force by police against McDade was justified.

Woodard was approached by police who were responding to a call in a restaurant parking lot. Police reported that a confrontation with Woodard ensued and that he was armed, resulting in their use of deadly force. A Leon County grand jury also concluded that the police officers were justified in their use of deadly force against Woodard.

Both of these cases are connected to Marsy’s Law because the officers involved in each assert that they were victims since they were threatened with deadly force before the shootings began. The City of Tallahassee wanted to release the names of the officers, however, the Florida Police Benevolent Association sued to block their names from release. As a result, the police union successfully prevented the names of the officers involved in the shootings from being released to the public.  Although the Circuit Court for Leon County previously ruled that the officer’s names should be released since Marsy’s Law “was not intended to apply to law enforcement officers when acting in their official capacity,” the First District Court of Appeals disagreed and found the officers were victims whose names should be redacted.

Virginia Hamrick, an attorney at the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, who was a party in the lawsuit, expressed her disappointment in the appellate ruling, stating:

“It just allows law enforcement officers to go around without any accountability. And it makes it harder for public oversight of policing and specifically deadly force.”

The city of Tallahassee then appealed, filing briefs in June and asking the Florida Supreme Court to take the case and answer the following three questions:

  1. Whether a law enforcement officer who is threatened with harm in the course and scope of official duty is a “crime victim” under “Marsy’s Law.”
  2. Whether the Constitutional Amendment requires a triggering event—the commencement of a criminal proceeding—before a “crime victim” is entitled to the protections of Marsy’s Law.
  3. Whether Marsy’s Law provides a constitutional right of anonymity to law enforcement officers who are threatened with harm in the course and scope of duty.

As of December 21, 2021, the Florida Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction of the case and will ultimately decide whether Marsy’s law can shield the identities of police officers. Although the Court has not set the date for oral arguments, the issue continues to garnish strong public opinion. Jennifer Fennell, a Marsy’s Law for Florida Spokesperson stated “This is an important constitutional issue with statewide significance. That is why the Florida Supreme Court has jurisdiction. Adding clarity and uniformity to the law benefits everyone.”

In addition to keeping the names of officers private, many police departments have started abstaining from releasing information of the location of criminal activity, as “businesses and buildings themselves can be considered victims of crime.” Although meant to serve as a protective measure, not releasing such information can pose a serious threat to the public if they are unaware that rampant crime is taking place in certain locations. Furthermore, those that oppose keeping the names of the officers private believe it will create a slippery-slope that will ultimately allow police to “claim victimhood” in every situation by stating that they believed an activity was a perceived threat, and therefore, that their use of deadly force was an act of self-defense.

Important 2022 Update

On February 15, 2022, Michael Chitwood, the Volusia County Sheriff, received approval from the Florida Supreme Court to file a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that Marsy’s Law protections should not apply to law enforcement officers. This occurred after Florida’s Supreme Court ruled that Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County Sheriff, could file a similar brief emphasizing the same sentiment. In the wake of this news, Chitwood highlighted the importance of transparency between law enforcement and the public when it comes to shootings, stating that his police department has released the names of deputies who have been involved in shootings in order to keep the public properly informed. He expanded on this, stating,

 “VSO (the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office) is interested in this appeal as it believes that the citizens should know the names of deputies who are involved in the use of deadly force while carrying out their official duties. This disclosure of the deputies’ names not only promotes transparency and accountability but helps to rebuild the eroding public trust in law enforcement. VSO desires to continue disclosing the names of deputies who are involved in the use of deadly force while in the execution of their official duties in order to continue promoting transparency and accountability.”

Both briefs will address Tallahassee law enforcement’s use of Marsy’s law to prevent their identities from being released after their use of deadly force resulted in the deaths of McDade and Woodard. Regardless of how long we have to wait for the Supreme Court to hear arguments, one thing is for sure – this issue isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

This article was written by Sarah Kamide


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