We told you last month that the First Amendment Foundation intervened in a lawsuit brought by the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) against the City of Tallahassee. This month, we can report some excellent news, though the fight will continue.
In the lawsuit, the PBA argues that law enforcement officers are victims under Marsy's Law when they are involved in on-duty violent interactions with citizens and, as a result, their identities should be withheld and kept secret from the public. The PBA brought the suit to prevent the City of Tallahassee from disclosing documents that would identify "John Doe 1" and "John Doe 2", the as-yet unnamed officers involved in two Tallahassee shootings. Significantly, the City of Tallahassee wants to release the documents. It is not the local government trying to hide the officers' identities or shield public records; it is the police union, the PBA.
FAF intervened in the lawsuit to disagree with the PBA, along with the Florida Press Association, Gannett Co., Inc., Miami Herald Media Company, and the New York Times Company (collectively "the Intervenors"). Like the City of Tallahassee, the Intervenors argue that Marsy’s Law was not intended to protect the identities of law enforcement officers.
On July 24th, Judge Charles Dodson rejected the PBA's argument, ruling that "Marsy's Law was not intended to apply to law enforcement officers when acting in their official capacity." Recognizing that the end result of the PBA's argument would result in officers acting with virtual anonymity in any situation involving violence, Judge Dodson wrote: "The public has a vital right to evaluate the conduct of our law enforcement officers, who are empowered to arrest people and use deadly force. For this court to hold that on-duty law enforcement officers may use Marsy's Law to prevent the disclosure of their names would provide them with a protection not intended by the express purpose of that law."
In a win for open government, Judge Dodson recognized the "unique public duty" served by law enforcement officers, as well as the need for transparency and accountability. His ruling would have required release of the identities of the law enforcement officers involved in the fatalities. However, within minutes of the ruling, the PBA filed a Notice of Appeal to the First District Court of Appeal and a Motion to Stay the ruling of the court. The City of Tallahassee and the Intervenors submitted swift responses opposing a stay of the ruling. After a hearing on July 30th, the court granted the PBA's Motion for Stay, finding that automatic stay provisions found in Florida's appellate rules, which confer heightened protections to those acting in official government capacities, should be applied.
As a result, the officers' names have not been disclosed and the litigation is on its way to the First DCA. The Intervenors have filed a joint motion with the City of Tallahassee seeking expedited appellate review.
It is extraordinary that at a time of international movements opposing police brutality, systemic racism, and calling for greater accountability in law enforcement, the Florida PBA moves in the wrong direction, believing that hiding identities makes police officers safer. We believe that only when there is transparency can we begin to build trust in our communities -- trust that makes everyone safer.
We are grateful to our legal team at Thomas & LoCicero for their excellent advocacy and long hours of dedication on behalf of the Intervenors. Lawsuits are expensive and require resources, but they are necessary in the fight for transparency, open government, and justice. Rest assured that your support of FAF allows us to continue to battle for enforcement of open government laws.