TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Does state law shield the identities of police officers who kill someone during a violent encounter? The Florida Supreme Court is now mulling that question after hearing arguments Wednesday about the breadth of Marsy's Law.
Florida enacted its version of the policy in 2018 through a constitutional amendment. Marsy's Law is essentially a victims' bill of rights and protects the identity of those victims through its numerous provisions.
The case at issue spawns from two separate Tallahassee incidents in 2020. Local police responded to threats against their lives by shooting and killing alleged assailants, prompting protests in the capital city.
Concerned for their safety, the Florida Police Benevolent Association (FPBA) sought to stop Tallahassee from releasing the names of the officers involved, arguing they were victims under Marsy's Law and entitled to anonymity.
Once gaveled in, the definition of a "victim" under the law became a key question for the high court. Specifically, whether police were considered a "person" or something else, subject to higher scrutiny and transparency.
"An on-duty officer who uses force against a suspect is not acting as an individual, but rather as an agent of the government," Phil Padovano, an attorney representing the city of Tallahassee in the legal dispute, said. "The officers here were acting in an official capacity by the authority invested in them by the city of Tallahassee."
Luke Newman, an attorney for FPBA, told justices the opposite during the about 45-minute proceeding.
"My individual clients are people," Newman said. "No carveout, as suggested by my colleagues, exists in the language. This is a request for an after-the-fact, ad hoc exception."
The high court's decision will likely have broad-ranging impacts in Florida and could prompt more police to seek anonymity under similar circumstances. That's a concern for the numerous media outlets that joined the legal battle. Many worry the court will create a precedent that could shield bad actors and erode transparency.
Law and politics legal expert Will Cooper believed the justices would have a "heavy lift" on the matter. The attorney said each side of the case has merits, noting the lower courts were split on the issue.
"It's just a classic example where the statute isn't clear," Cooper said. "Now, if the statute had defined victim to say this includes police officers, there'd be no question at all."
Justices could now take days, weeks or more to offer their opinion. It's anyone's guess how they'll rule. Florida's Supreme Court often offers its decisions on Thursday mornings. This one, however, could be slowed by the holidays.