Florida’s New Victims’ Rights Law Is Shaking Up The Criminal Justice System

  • Feb 18 2019

Last November, Florida voters passed an amendment to our state constitution that’s causing quite a stir. It is shifting priorities in the criminal justice system and making it harder for the public to get information about crimes committed in their neighborhoods. As a criminal defense firm, we find this frustrating.

When you first hear about it, Amendment 6 sounds like a great idea. What could be bad about a law that is going to make sure victims and their families are protected while any criminal case they are involved with works its way through the court system?

In fact, the constitutional amendment is often referred to as Marsy’s Law because it was initially inspired by the family of a California woman named Marsy who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend. Just a week after Marsy was murdered, her mother was confronted by Marcy’s accused killer in the grocery store — nobody had told them their daughter’s accused killer was out on bail.

This sounds like a horrible experience, and it seems like something we should try and do something about. Which is why Florida has long had a law that keeps victims and their families in the loop when a person accused of a crime or a convicted criminal is released from custody. But victims’ rights advocates wanted more.

During the November 2018 election, 62% of Florida voters voted in favor of a Marsy’s law for Florida. Now, our state constitution includes a lengthy list of 11 rights that are supposed to “preserve and protect the right of crime victims to achieve justice, ensure a meaningful role throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems for crime victims, and ensure that crime victims’ rights and interests are respected and protected by law in a manner no less vigorous than protections afforded to criminal defendants and juvenile delinquents.”

This is not just an empty promise to try to treat victims better. The last part, where it says this new law is going to “ensure that crime victims’ rights and interests are respected and protected by law in a manner no less vigorous than protections afforded to criminal defendants and juvenile delinquents” is a radical change to our criminal justice system.

For as long as it has been law, criminal law has existed as a way for the government to punish people who violate its laws. The punishments vary according to the crime, but anyone accused of a crime is at risk of losing something — their property, freedom, or life. It is this risk of loss at the hands of the government that puts criminal defendants in a unique and protected position.

That’s why criminal defendants have the right to an attorney, the right to appeal, the right to confront their accuser and know the charges being brought against them, the right to remain silent, the list goes on and on. We give those accused of crimes special rights because we have empowered the government to take so many other rights away.

The new law elevates victims rights to this same level. And this is causing a lot of confusion. The police and the courts are struggling to comply with the law, and we are concerned that the rights of criminal defendants are being unconstitutionally diminished or ignored in the process.

In addition, local media outlets are reporting that the new law is making it difficult to get accurate information about crimes in certain communities. Some jurisdictions are refusing to release the names of victims or other details about crimes that have been committed. This makes reporting on those crimes difficult, and reduces the public’s awareness of crime in their own communities. This flies in the face of Florida’s open public records law (“Sunshine laws”).

Some clarification of the new law is needed as soon as possible so the rights of criminal defendants and the public are not ignored.

Posted in: Criminal