An iron curtain of secrecy has fallen between the people of Florida and the government that’s supposed to keep them safe from crime. The new constitutional amendment with the beguiling nickname of Marsy’s Law has spawned widespread contempt for the state’s tradition of public records and open government.
It owes to an ambiguous provision that promises privacy to crime victims to shield them from harassment. Many law enforcement officials have been over-reacting by closing off information that has always been public, such as homicide records a quarter-century old, the name of a police officer who shot into a moving car, and the identities of both the victim and the suspect in a vehicular homicide.
At Jacksonville, police are even refusing to say where a crime occurred if it happened at a victim’s home. Such enforced ignorance leaves neighborhoods more vulnerable to burglary and rape and stifle a major source of crime-fighting tips. Moreover, it’s pointless to the point of absurdity. The criminal already knows where he committed the crime.
There’s even a danger, slight perhaps but not negligible, that court proceedings will be cast into darkness in disregard of a defendant’s constitutional right to a public trial and to confront accusers.
Now, word comes that a legislative committee will propose a bill to implement the controversial privacy provision. That could be an opportunity to apply common sense to the problem. But given the proven influence of the Marsy’s Law nationwide lobby, including Kelsey Grammar, it could also make matters worse.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, an outspoken advocate for crime victims, filed legislation that would further impede how defense attorneys prepare for trial. She also obtained an attorney’s opinion endorsing her view that the amendment shields victims’ names from disclosure.
The Legislature needs to hear more than that side of it and be much more deliberative than the Constitution Revision Commission was.
The commission put Marsy’s Law on the November ballot, as Amendment 6, without considering how it would clog up the criminal justice system, cover up possible police misconduct, waste time and money on red tape, and tilt the scales of justice against the fundamental constitutional rights of the accused.
Not every defendant is guilty, even if most are. Not every “victim” tells the truth, even though most do. Not every witness remembers events correctly; many don’t. The exceptions become miscarriages of justices, such as the 42 years that two men from Jacksonville spent in prison for murder before a new state attorney recently found “no abiding confidence” in the convictions.
Like the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, commission members brought forth a monstrosity. Ten other states adopted Marsy’s Law through legislative action or referendum and there have been serious problems. South Dakota amended its version, which was much like Florida’s, to require a victim to request privacy and to allow the police to share information “for the purposes of enlisting the public’s help in solving a crime.” The Georgia and North Carolina legislatures left out the broad-brush privacy provision.
In Florida, however, the lawyer’s opinion commissioned by the Marsy’s Law lobby at Book’s request raises the astounding prospect of keeping the victim’s name secret all the way through the trial.
Somebody had better address it before Florida finds itself in head-on conflict with the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the accused “the right to a speedy and public trial…to be confronted with the witnesses against him (and) to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor.”
Florida’s Constitution already guaranteed crime victims the right to be informed of case developments and to be heard at appropriate times. The Legislature fleshed that out with specific provisions that covered most of what’s in Marsy’s Law.
The amendment makes no distinction between minor and major crimes. In South Dakota, a victim’s assistant in the Minnehaha County state attorney’s office said she had to spend nearly a whole day trying to notify an out-of-state bank that someone had been arrested for trespassing in a home it owned. The bank didn’t reply.
Florida hardly needs miles and miles of that kind of red tape choking the courts and wasting money. Neither do victims.