Florida judge declines ruling in Marsy's Law case, request to shield name of officer in local shooting
A Tallahassee judge Thursday declined to issue an emergency court order to keep secret the name of the officer who shot and killed fatal stabbing suspect Tony McDade.
Circuit Judge Charles Dodson told lawyers there wasn't a clear controversy compelling him to make an immediate ruling.
“I’m concerned about being asked to make a decision on a case of this great importance based on the record as it stands now,” Dodson said. He noted how such an order, called an injunction, could affect not only the McDade case but those in the future. "Based on what’s before me today, I cannot rule."
He suggested instead that city officials first seek an opinion from State Attorney Jack Campbell or Attorney General Ashley Moody's office on the constitutionality of Marsy's Law in Florida.
The short hearing came just four days after the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA) sought to bar the officer's name from release, contending he was a victim under Marsy’s Law, a constitutional amendment approved by Florida voters in 2018 that protects the rights and privacy of crime victims.
The amendment, however, seems to run counter to the state's Sunshine Law on open records. It's not been settled whether officers can be termed "victims" in the course of their official duties.
Attorneys for the city of Tallahassee sought guidance on the release of information relating to the incident on May 27 and whether they can honor public records requests.
McDade, who had been severely beaten by a group of men, allegedly stabbed 21-year-old Malik Jackson the next day before fleeing to a nearby apartment complex, according to Tallahassee police.
A responding officer spotted McDade, who allegedly pointed a gun at him, prompting the officer to fire his service weapon.
The city, despite Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell's contention that the officer’s name should be withheld, is intent on releasing information requested by news media and members of the public, as noted in its Monday response to the injunction.
But Dodson said it isn't clear to him what has been requested and by whom. He also said information requesters have the right to be heard in the matter.
The Tallahassee Democrat has asked for personnel files of all three officers involved in shootings in the past three months and has requested body camera video from McDade’s shooting. The police department's public records custodians have acknowledged the request but not provided a response.
“We do note that this is a novel issue with regard to Marsy’s Law and the right of the public to gather public information about what public officials do,” Assistant City Attorney Hannah Monroe said. “An expectation of privacy in these types of circumstances could undercut expectations of police accountability.”
Monroe said there were public records exemptions that could address concerns of the PBA and the officer in question. They prevent the public disclosure of home address, telephone and personal information regarding his family but would not exclude his name from becoming public.
Marsy's Law for Florida, the group that advocated for the amendment, said law enforcement officers should have the same rights as anyone else if they are crime victims, as TPD and the PBA have contended. The amendment does not differentiate between the general public and law enforcement.
But, spokeswoman Jennifer Fennell added, "police officers who have committed crimes cannot hide behind Marsy’s Law."
"If a determination is made that a police officer has broken the law in the case, they become a defendant ... and as such, they automatically lose all their rights as a victim under the Marsy’s Law provision of the Florida Constitution, and their name must be released."
Identifying the officer has been among the key demands of protesters, who have taken to the streets for days in the capital city. Protesters also have demanded the release of body camera video of McDade’s shooting.
Revell and State Attorney Jack Campbell said they could release the video, but are withholding it to allow a Leon County grand jury to determine whether the officer’s use of lethal force was justified.
Stephen Webster, an attorney for the police union, said withholding the officer’s name would not frustrate any attempts to review his shooting. He maintained that the officer, described only as “John Doe” in court records, was a victim of felony aggravated assault and should have the same rights as any other crime victim.
“The timing of this event coincided with an absolute period of tumult in this nation that is beyond the bounds of my analysis,” Webster said, adding the officer or his family could face reprisals if his name became publicly known.
It would have no effect on reviews of McDade's death by the courts, the grand jury, internal affairs investigators or the state attorney's office, Webster contended.
“I don’t know why his name is important to a review of what happened," he said. "This doesn’t frustrate the public ability to look over the shoulder of government officials and review their acts.”
Contact Karl Etters at email@example.com or @KarlEtters on Twitter.
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.