Pointing to a new state law, an appeals court ruled Wednesday that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office does not have to disclose the names of witnesses to a February murder on Interstate 95.
A three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled against the Sun Sentinel newspaper, which filed a public-records lawsuit after the sheriff’s office refused to release the names of people who witnessed the murder and pursued the shooter.
A Palm Beach County circuit judge ruled in favor of the Sun Sentinel, issuing a final order April 6 that said the names of the witnesses should be disclosed under the public-records law. But on May 9, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a new public-records exemption (HB 111) that keeps confidential the identities of murder witnesses for two years after murders occur.
The appeals court Wednesday said Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Donald Hafele had ruled correctly under the law as it existed in April. But the appeals court said the new law applies retroactively to the case and that the information the Sun Sentinel “requests falls comfortably within the newly enacted exemption.”
“The effect of this legislative amendment to (the public-records law) is that identifying information of a witness to a murder is not only exempt, which gives law enforcement agencies discretion in disclosing or not disclosing the information, but also confidential, which means that the agency has no discretion except for in the limited scenarios provided for in the amended statute,” said the eight-page ruling, written by Judge Michael Hanzman and joined by judges Cory Ciklin and Dorian Damoorgian.
Backers of the new law, which passed 113-3 in the House and 34-3 in the Senate, argued during the spring legislative session that the public-records exemption was needed to help spur witnesses to come forward in murder cases. They said many witnesses fear retaliation for cooperating with police.
But the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government group, urged Scott to veto the bill, saying it “offends our constitutional right of access to government information and is antithetical to our criminal justice system and rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.” (Disclosure: The News Service of Florida is a member of the First Amendment Foundation.)
The Palm Beach County case involved the shooting death of Antoine Smith as he drove on Interstate 95, the appeals-court ruling said. The shooter, who remains at large, was followed by another vehicle whose occupants tried to get the shooter’s license-plate number.
“To deter these good Samaritans, the perpetrator fired shots which struck their vehicle but fortunately did not result in personal injury,” the appeals court ruling said.
In arguing in circuit court against releasing the identities of the witnesses, the sheriff’s office said the murder investigation was ongoing, that the shooter remained at large and was dangerous and that disclosure of the witnesses’ names would put them in danger and compromise the investigation, the appeals-court ruling said.
But the circuit judge agreed with the Sun Sentinel that the witnesses, who had been shot at, were also victims. As a result, information about their identities would be available under the public-records law at the time. That is because a public-records exemption about “active criminal investigative information” did not apply to the identities of crime victims.
But under the new law shielding the identities of murder witnesses, it “makes no difference whether a witness to a murder is also a victim whose identity is not itself considered criminal intelligence or investigative information,” the appeals court said.
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.