Law enforcement balances public's right to know with Marsy's Law

Questions are mounting over a new Florida law to protect victims and how law enforcement agencies balances victims’ rights and the public’s right to know.

Marsy's law, an amendment passed in November 2018, is playing out in different ways in Tampa Bay. Following the deadly Sebring SunTrust Dank shooting on January 23, families of three victims chose to withhold their names. But by the end of the week, media outlets learned the identities of four of the five victims. Then on February 1, a Sarasota County daycare worker was arrested for child abuse. Three children were victims, and under Marsy’s law the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office decided the daycare was a victim too. On Facebook, parents posted to the agency's page asking which daycare was involved, and deputies responded they can’t provide that information. They did release video of the incident and the name of the daycare worker accused in the case. After the release of the arrest, FOX13 asked how not giving the daycare facility name could impact parents.

“Per our in-house general counsel, they decided to withhold all of their information including the name of the facility to further protect the children in this investigation,” said Kaitlyn Perez, the spokesperson for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. “The other side of this could have been we didn't release anything and then people would ask us a month later why we didn't tell the public.”

Every agency interprets Marsy’s law differently.

“What we're doing now is looking at cases on a case by case basis as they come in,” said Sasha Lohn, the general counsel for St. Petersburg Police Department.

Lohn said Marsy’s law does not line up with Florida’s open records law.

“Yes, we are looking for Tallahassee to amend Chapter 119 or to give us guidance on what this constitutional amendment means and should mean,” Lohn said.

FOX13 asked what would happen if a crime creates a public safety problem and Marsy's law prevents the public from learning the location.

“I can tell you that the Florida Association of Police Attorneys, the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Florida Chiefs of Police Association are all working on getting clarity so that situations like the one you just laid out do not cause public safety issues,” said Lohn.

Shirley Arcuri is with the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization that did not support the law. She believes police should decide what’s released to the public as they did before.

“This takes away I think some of their discretion in doing that. So, it may make me as a member of the public less safe,” said Arcuri.

Arcuri said she believes the difference in interpretation regarding victim’s information is just the beginning and impacts to the court system are next.

Since there's no uniform approach, law enforcement agencies said they are looking to lawmakers for answers.