Cops who want their names to remain anonymous after a shooting or incident of misconduct may soon not have a law to hide behind.
The Florida Supreme Court will finally hear arguments Wednesday regarding whether police officers can use a provision of state law meant to protect the identities of crime victims to shield themselves from public scrutiny. At least 12 other states have the rule in place, and how Florida’s court rules could have lasting consequences across the country.
Several news media organizations, including the Miami Herald, the New York Times, and the Florida Press Association, have joined the monumental case in hopes of ensuring their right to obtain and publish information, like an officer’s identity.
The statute in question, known as Marcy’s Law, was intended to give victims of crimes and their families the right to know what’s happening with a suspect, like being released on bail. But a provision of the law that allows victims to keep themselves anonymous has been adopted to prevent the release of officers’ identities in the aftermath of a harmful police action.
In January, an officer in Miramar, Florida, used Marsy’s Law after he shot and paralyzed a 15-year-old suspected car thief as he fled from the cops. In December 2021, a Boynton Beach, Florida, police officer who briefly chased a 13-year-old boy illegally riding a dirt bike invoked Marsy’s law after the boy died in a crash during the pursuit.
“A ruling in law enforcement’s favor would essentially anonymize the actions of law enforcement officers when they claim to be victims in any kind of encounter with the public, which is hugely problematic, because we want to be able to investigate and see what police officers are doing,” Daniela Abratt, one of four attorneys representing the media coalition in the case, told VICE News.
“A ruling in law enforcement’s favor would essentially anonymize the actions of law enforcement officers when they claim to be victims in any kind of encounter with the public.”
Marsy’s Law, which was first passed in California in 2008, is named after California resident Marsalee Ann Nicholas who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Immediately after her funeral, Marsalee’s mother, unaware that her daughter’s killer had been released on bail days earlier, was confronted by him at a grocery store. Since then, several other states, including Georgia, North Dakota, Tennessee, and North Carolina, have adopted the law. Florida voted in favor of a referendum in 2018 that changed the state constitution to provide Marsy Law rights to its citizens.
In July 2020, the Florida Police Benevolent Association filed a lawsuit against the city of Tallahassee after officials said the identities of two cops who shot and killed two suspects should become public. The union argued that in both situations, the officers involved were the subject of threats from the individuals they shot and killed. Under these circumstances (and the state constitution’s definition of a "victim”) the police association said that officers can be just as much of a victim as a civilian whose life was directly impacted by a criminal’s actions, and it’s necessary that their identities be protected to avoid the possibility of retaliatory crimes.
“The Florida Supreme Court has long recognized that police officers are people and that they can be the victims of crime,” Stephen Webster, one of the attorneys representing the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told VICE News. “The citizens of the state of Florida, by a super majority, voted to amend the constitution to adopt Marcy's Law which protects victims and provides victims with rights. Law enforcement officers are no different and are shielded by those same protections.”
Police transparency advocates, however, argue that this interpretation of Marsy’s Law shouldn’t apply.
“We believe that’s a warped way of using Marsy’s Law. That’s not what it was intended to do,” Abratt said. “Law enforcement officers wear a badge that is given to them by the state. They are supposed to serve and protect their community, and the authority that they act under is given to them by the state under statutes. It's critical that the public gets to evaluate their actions and what they do under color of law. They are not random members of the public trying to protect their names.”
So far, Florida’s state courts have been conflicted over how Marsy’s Law should be applied. The first court to hear the police association’s case in 2020 ruled police shouldn’t receive these protections, but Florida’s 1st District Court reversed that ruling in April 2021, deciding that cops are victims under these circumstances. The discrepancy sent the case to the state’s Supreme Court.
The coalition of media—as well as local civil rights advocacy groups like the First Amendment Foundation that joined the case— are hoping to clarify whether government agents can legally invoke “victim” status to shield their names from public record if those records are documents of their on-duty, government-sanctioned actions.
In a statement to VICE News, Marsy’s Law for Florida, a political organization that advocated for the passage of the 2018 voter referendum, stopped short of taking a side in the case.
“This is an important constitutional issue with statewide significance,” a statement shared by a spokesperson via email read. “That is why the Florida Supreme Court has jurisdiction. Adding clarity and uniformity to the law benefits everyone.”
The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, which is expected months after the two sides argue their cases Wednesday, will decide once and for all how Marsy’s Law can be used in Florida. And the decision is sure to affect how the law will be applied in states that already have the statute, as well as those that might adopt a version in the future.
“Marsy’s Law in most states is so new, any decision that comes out of any state is going to be looked at for some level of guidance,” Abratt explained. “I’m sure other states are keeping their eyes out to see just how Florida interprets this.”
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.