OUR VIEW: Marsy’s Law jeopardizes your right to be informed

Credit: Jim Noelker

Credit: Jim Noelker

One of the most critical functions of local journalism is to shine a light on government – how it spends your tax dollars, delivers efficient services and acts transparently and in plain view of the public.

Our commitment to the role of government watchdog is evident in our reporting on City Hall, on school board meetings, local elections and on incidents involving area police and fire departments.

At the same time, we recognize the importance of striking a balance between the public’s right to be informed and the privacy of individuals thrust into the spotlight – especially of victims of violent crimes, sexually oriented offenses and violations of protection orders. In our reporting, we are mindful of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics regarding minimizing harm:

“Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Last January, crime victims received additional protection following the passage of HB 343, Ohio’s version of “Marsy’s Law,” also known as The Ohio Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights. Marsy’s Law is named for Marsy Nicholas, a Cincinnati native who was murdered in California in 1983. Her death led multiple states, including Ohio, to adopt stronger protections for crime victims..

According to the Ohio Supreme Court, The Ohio Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights state that crime victims “have the right to reasonable notice, to be present and heard at all court proceedings, to be informed of the release of the offender, to offer input on negotiated pleas, to a prompt conclusion of their case, and to restitution for economic losses resulting from the criminal offense or delinquent act.”

These are important, necessary protections that should be lauded. Since its passage, however, there have been numerous examples throughout Ohio of how Marsy’s Law’s has been used in ways that run counter to the intentions of its advocates.

Police departments, for example, are now using the law as a way to prevent releasing information about officers as well as omitting key details of crimes from crime reports, including the names of homicide victims.

In Franklin County, the Columbus Dispatch is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to force the Columbus Police Department to release the names of officers involved in deadly shootings.

“When reviewing the conduct of an on-duty law enforcement officer who has used physical force, the right to privacy of their name must quickly yield to the public’s right to know,” said Jessica Ryan, communications director of the advocacy group Marsy’s Law for Ohio.

Last month, we reported on the city of Kettering refusing to release records identifying two police officers who shot and wounded suspects. The city of Kettering also refused to release details of officers’ actions before, during or after the shootings.

David Voth fought successfully for the passage of the Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment in 2017 as executive director of the nonprofit Crime Victim Services. He and Andrea White, the state legislator representing Kettering who sponsored the bill allowing for the implementation of Marsy’s Law last year, have both said there was never any discussion of classifying police officers who shoot people in the line of duty as victims.

“I think that the stronger, clearer and broadened crime victim rights in our ‘Marsy’s Law’ constitutional amendment, mostly implemented in Ohio Revised Code 2930, generally do not apply here,” said Voth. “I do not recall any conversations of victim rights advocates that the intended privacy protections of victims would apply to law enforcement officers while apprehending suspects.”

Prior to Marsy’s Law taking effect, police departments did not have a legal reason to keep officers’ identities secret. This secrecy, particularly when it involves use of force or the killing of citizens by law enforcement, is likely to exacerbate the simmering mistrust that exists between the public and police, which was brought to heightened national attention following the George Floyd protests in 2020.

Late last year, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned an effort to use Florida’s version of Marsy’s Law to shield the names of officers involved in fatal shootings, saying it violates the state’s public records law. We hope that the Ohio Supreme Court reaches a similar conclusion when it hears the complaint from The Columbus Dispatch later this year.

The law also removes victims’ names, age and gender from reports to media, as well as the exact address of a crime. While victims deserve privacy, the removal of key details goes too far and can leave the public in the dark regarding the nature and severity of a crime that could have happened in their neighborhood.

There are other egregious examples of the law’s unintended consequence, including it being invoked as a defense for a man who allegedly ran over and killed his longtime girlfriend in a drunk driving incident. Because of the defendant’s role as provider to her two sons, his attorney argued that Marsy’s Law should also apply to him, allowing him to give input on plea deals, prompt disposition of his case and even be awarded restitution for financial losses.

Clearly, Marsy’s Law is being used in ways that its advocates had never intended or anticipated. For the sake of protecting the public’s right to know key details of police activity, we believe it is important to close the loopholes in the law, which largely can be resolved in how it defines a “victim,” which currently does not make an exception based on a person’s role as a police officer. In the interest of protecting the public’s right to know how they are being policed by law enforcement funded by their taxpayer dollars, we believe an exemption needs to be made for police in the language of Marsy’s Law.

Further, we encourage that lawmakers reconsider the implementation of Marsy’s Law so it focuses on giving victims rights in the courts without undoing the public’s right to information regarding public safety and police accountability.

When a crime occurs in our communities, it is important that its victims be treated with compassion and decency. Equally important is ensuring that the response to that crime is handled appropriately and reported on with the accuracy and detail required for the community to be fully informed and aware.

Marsy’s Law Explainer:

  • Expands a victim’s representative rights, including early and increased access to information on their cases.
  • Requires law enforcement to immediately give crime victims a detailed pamphlet on their rights, plus provide a victim’s rights request form within 14 days of starting prosecution.
  • Sends victims notice of relevant actions by courts, prosecutors, jails and probation departments.
  • Offers free or inexpensive access to copies of many legal documents.
  • Lets victims of violent crimes submit statements before authorities consider parole, commutation or a reprieve for an offender.
  • Allows testimony by child victims to be taken by deposition, recorded or provided by video.

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