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Decision to withhold Florida bank victim names tests new law

January 25, 2019
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FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2019 file photo, Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund answers a question during a news conference in Sebring, Fla. Five people were shot and killed on Wednesday at a SunTrust Bank. The police chief in Sebring, Fla, declined to release some of the slain women's names at the request of their families, citing a provision in the "Marsy's Law" amendment to the state Constitution that voters approved in November. Florida's law specifically allows crime victims to prevent the disclosure of information that could be used to locate or harass them or their families. Marsy's Law is being bankrolled by a California billionaire whose sister, Marsalee Nicholas, was slain in 1983. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A Florida police chief’s decision not to release the names of some of the five women killed in a bank shooting this week represents the first high-profile test of a law being enacted in several states that pits victim privacy against the public’s right to know.

The police chief in Sebring, Florida, declined to release the names of some of the slain women, citing a provision in the “Marsy’s Law” amendment to the state constitution that voters approved in November. Florida’s law specifically allows crime victims to prevent the disclosure of information that could be used to locate or harass them or their families.

“Is it really necessary for the public to have the names of all five victims to understand what’s happening down there and what’s going on?” said Paul Cassell, a victim’s rights expert and a professor at the University of Utah who supported the Florida law. “I don’t think there’s a public interest in the specific names of the victims in the immediate aftermath, so I think the law is working as it’s intended and having a beneficial effect for families that are grieving right now.”

But allowing crime victims to determine what information gets released to the public sets a dangerous precedent, said Barbara Petersen of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. Petersen maintains police are misinterpreting the new provisions in a way that could deal a major blow to the public’s right to information about its government.

“How do we hold law enforcement accountable? Are we going to start having secret trials, crime victims testifying behind curtains?” Petersen asked.

She said state legislators need to provide clarity and ensure the amendment does not conflict with Florida’s broad public records access laws, and that the privacy provision could end up being challenged in court.

“It is going to have to be resolved,” Petersen said.

Beyond the concerns of open government advocates, law enforcement officials in some states say Marsy’s Law could hinder their ability to solve crimes if they can’t release some details to the public.

Voters in South Dakota ultimately chose to fix Marsy’s Law after the original proposal approved in 2016 curtailed the information law enforcement agencies were able to release to the public. The new changes require victims to opt in to many of their rights and specifically allow authorities to share information with the public.

Minnehaha County, South Dakota, Sheriff Mike Milstead, who supported that state’s fix, said releasing details about the crime often lead to tips from the public, who are critical to helping law enforcement solve crimes.

Bankrolled by a California billionaire Henry Nicholas, whose sister Marsalee Nicholas was slain in 1983, a version of “Marsy’s Law” has been put into the constitutions of more than 15 states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina and Oklahoma just in November.

Although each state’s law is unique, language was intentionally included in Florida’s amendment to give the families of crime victims greater authority about what kind of personal information is released, Cassell said.

After a loved one is slain, some relatives are eager to talk publicly about their family member, but for others the grieving process is more of a private matter, said Sherry Nolan with the Ohio-based Parents of Murdered Children. Nolan’s 24-year-old daughter was killed in 2001.

“I think it should be our option as a family member of a loved one,” Nolan said.

Henry Nicholas, the co-founder of tech giant Broadcom, has taken his crusade nationwide and spent millions from his fortune to hire lobbyists, public relations firms and high-powered political strategists to converge on state capitols for a similar push. Operations are ongoing to get the measure on ballots in Idaho, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Not every state’s version of Marsy’s Law includes the privacy language, but situations have surfaced in some states where law enforcement withheld information from the public. Before Montana’s version of the law was overturned by state courts, police in a city there declined to release the names of two homicide victims, which were also sealed in court documents.

In Oklahoma, open records advocates negotiated with lawmakers drafting the language to keep the privacy provision out.

In Florida, where the amendment took effect Jan. 8, some authorities have stopped releasing crime victim information while others have continued to do so.

Police in the state capital of Tallahassee, for example, provided little about the victim of an apparent traffic crash in which a body was found in the middle of a neighborhood roundabout. Tampa authorities declined to provide information about two people found shot dead in a car near the Busch Gardens theme park.

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