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More Police Invoke Victims' Laws To Protect Themselves In Force Cases

Police use of victims’ rights laws to shield the identity of officers after a use-of-force incident — especially fatal shootings — has been growing in a number of states, including Florida, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In Ohio, a new law requires police automatically to withhold the names of violent crime victims, including on-duty police officers. Ohio officials cite the law in explaining the limited release of information in recent police shootings, the Marshall Project reports. So-called Marsy’s Law statutes began popping up in 2008 — first in California. The push has largely been propelled by a single billionaire activist, Henry Nicholas III, who named the law after his murdered sister Proponents argue the laws protect the rights of crime victims; just as the justice system, at least in theory, offers some protections to criminal defendants. Protections under victims’ laws often include a right to be notified of court hearings involving the defendant, and the right not to be publicly identified in ways that could attract harassment or retaliation. One in three Americans now live in states with some variation of Marsy’s Law on the books, according to the campaign promoting its spread.

Civil liberties advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Cato Institute have long been skeptical of these laws on constitutional grounds. In the late 2010s, some critics also began ringing alarms that police were using the protections to evade identification after officers used force. That dramatically limits the public’s ability to evaluate police behavior, including determining whether an officer’s actions fit into a longer or broader pattern of violence. As then-Cato Institute researcher Jonathan Blanks put it, this “novel interpretation” was turning Marsy’s Law “on its head.” The police officer “is acting as an agent of the state,” Blanks argued. “He’s not a victim, and the idea that he gets anonymity for something he did in our name is absurd,” he said, alluding to police acting on the public’s behalf. A 2020 investigation by ProPublica and USA Today looking at the use of Marsy’s Law by police in Florida found that in at least half of cases, the officers were not injured. “Even minor movements that officers perceived as threatening, such as walking aggressively or reaching into a pocket, qualified as batteries on officers — triggering the law’s protection,” the news organizations found. A legal battle over the law’s use for officers is pending in the Florida Supreme Court.


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