MIAMI – The First District Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that a law meant to protect crime victims applies to police officers who want to shield their identity from the public after the use of deadly force.
The ruling stems from two police shootings in Tallahassee that killed Wilbon C. Woodard on May 19 and Tony McDade on May 27. Officers reported Woodard, 69, was armed with a hunting-style knife and McDade, 38, with a gun.
The appellate court reversed a Leon County trial court order that found Marsy’s Law, which grants rights to victims, does not apply to the identities of officers who are involved in fatal on-duty shootings.
“A police officer meets the definition of a crime victim ... when a crime suspect threatens the officer with deadly force, placing the officer in fear for his life,” the three-judge panel ruled.
This is contrary to the Leon County court’s ruling that a police officer could not claim victim status under Marsy’s law, named after Marsalee Nicholas, a college student who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 1983.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles W. Dodson reasoned that releasing the officer’s identity is “vital for the public’s ability to evaluate” not only the officer’s history of use of force but also the department’s discipline and treatment of the officer.
“The officers do not seek protection from the would-be accuseds, instead they apparently seek protection from possible retribution for their on-duty actions from unknown persons in the community,” Dodson wrote. “This type of protection is outside the scope of Marsy’s Law.”
The Florida Police Benevolent Association, a party in the appeal, argued officers were entitled to the protections granted to crime victims. On Tuesday, the Florida PBA issued a statement praising the decision as a major victory.
“This is precedent-setting law in Florida, which no other court has ruled on,” said Stephanie Dobson Webster, the attorney for the Florida PBA. “Moving forward, the Florida PBA will continue to protect our members’ legal rights whenever they are challenged and we will vigorously pursue their defense as far as we can go.”
The tension between the public’s demand for transparency and law enforcement’s demand for protection under Marcy’s law may eventually find its way to the Florida Supreme Court or to the Florida legislature.
APPELLATE COURT’S OPINION
THE PBA STATEMENT