May 06, 2021

Fla. Police Benevolent Ass’n. v. City of Tallahassee, — So. 3d —, 2021 WL 1257869, No. 1D20-2193 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. Apr. 6, 2021).

Appellants—two law enforcement officers who used deadly force as part of separate incidents that resulted in the deaths of the individuals suspected of committing crimes—appealed from the trial court’s order and judgment declaring that a law enforcement officer acting in their official capacity could not be a “victim” for purposes of Art. I, §16, the state’s constitutional victims’ rights amendment, and directing the City of Tallahassee to disclose to the public records that would reveal the officers’ identities. On de novo review, the Florida District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order and judgment, holding that: (1) an officer “meets the definition of a crime victim under Art. I, §16 when a crime suspect threatens the officer with deadly force, placing the officer in fear for his life”; (2) constitutional victims’ rights protections attach before criminal proceedings begin; and (3) identifying information about the officers was exempt from disclosure under public records laws. The court began its analysis by considering the interplay between Art. I, §16 and Art. I, §24(a), which protects the public’s right to access public records “except with respect to records exempted under this section or specifically made confidential by this Constitution.” The court explained that there was no need to limit the reach of Art. I, §16 because “[n]othing in article I, section 16 excludes law enforcement officers—or other government employees—from the protections granted crime victims . . . [a]nd no language in either article I, section 16 or article I, section 24(a) suggests that public records related to government employees ordinarily subject to disclosure are not entitled to confidential treatment under article I, section 16 when a government employee becomes a crime victim.” The court then concluded that for these reasons, the officers had the right to seek confidential treatment of public records that contained information that could be used to locate or harass them. The court noted that its conclusion would not prevent the public from “hold[ing] law enforcement officers accountable for any misconduct” as maintaining the confidentiality of identifying and locating information would not halt or prevent internal affairs or grand jury investigations. Further, if the officer is charged for their conduct, “then the officer would forfeit the protections under article I, section 16.” The court next rejected the trial court’s holding that a criminal proceeding must have commenced before the protections of Art. I, §16 apply. The court pointed to the plain language of Art. I, §16, which provides that “every victim is entitled to the enumerated rights, beginning at the time of his or her victimization” as well as interpretive case law in holding that a victim’s rights attach at the time of victimization. Lastly, the court held that the trial court erred in concluding that the officer’s names were not entitled to confidential treatment under Art. I, §16, which provides for, inter alia, “the [victim’s] right to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family, or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim.” The court concluded that “information…that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family” must include records that could reveal the victim’s name or identity, as “a crime victim’s name [is] the key that opens the door to locating the victim” given the realities of “multiple online search resources available to seek out information about individuals when the person’s name is known.” For these reasons, the court reversed the trial court’s order.