PALM BEACH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE and RIC L. BRADSHAW, In His Official Capacity as Palm Beach County Sheriff, Appellants,
SUN-SENTINEL COMPANY, LLC, Appellee.
final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.
from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit,
Palm Beach County; Donald W. Hafele, Judge; L.T. Case No.
Berard Rockenbach of Methe & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm
Beach, for appellants.
J. McElroy, Rachel Fugate and James J. McGuire of Thomas
& LoCicero PL, Fort Lauderdale, for appellee.
Hanzman, Michael A., Associate Judge.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and Ric L. Bradshaw
(collectively PBSO), appeal the trial court's final
judgment ordering that they disclose the identity of
witnesses to a murder pursuant to a public records request
made by Appellee, Sun Sentinel Company, LLC (Sun-Sentinel).
While we conclude that the trial court properly applied the
relevant provisions of Florida's Public Records Act (Act)
in force at the time of its decision, we nevertheless reverse
because a recent statutory amendment to Chapter 119 now
dictates that the identity of any witness to a murder is both
exempt from disclosure and confidential "for 2 years
after the date on which the murder is observed by the
witness." § 119.071(2)(m)1., Florida Statutes
(2017). We hold that this amendment applies retroactively and
prevents disclosure of the information Sun-Sentinel requests.
and Procedural History
February 2017, a perpetrator who remains at large shot and
killed Antoine Smith as he was driving on Interstate 95.
Another vehicle with two occupants followed the suspect's
car in an effort to obtain its license plate number. To deter
these good Samaritans, the perpetrator fired shots which
struck their vehicle but fortunately did not result in
thereafter, Sun-Sentinel sent a public records request to
PBSO, requesting, among other things, the names of the
individuals who pursued the assailant. PBSO refused this
request because, in its view: (a) the identity of witnesses
to a crime was covered by the so-called "active criminal
investigative information" exception to the Act; and (b)
as these "witnesses" were not "victims"
of the primary crime being investigated (the homicide), the
statutory "exception" to this "exemption"
- which compels disclosure of the identity of "the
victim of a crime" - was not implicated. See
§ 119.011(3)(c)2., Fla. Stat. (2017) ("Criminal
investigative information" shall not include "[t]he
name, sex, age, and address of . . . the victim of a
crime[.]"). Put simply, PBSO claimed that these good
Samaritans should be considered "witnesses" - not
"victims" - for purposes of applying the relevant
provisions of the Act.
required by chapter 119, Florida Statutes, the trial court
held an expedited hearing on Sun-Sentinel's complaint to
compel the release of this information. During this hearing,
PBSO's counsel informed the trial court that: (a) there
was an open and active homicide investigation pending; (b)
the perpetrator - and others who may have been accomplices -
were still at large and armed and dangerous; (c) the two
individuals who witnessed the murder were able to identify
the perpetrator; and (d) disclosure of these witnesses'
names would put their lives in danger and compromise the
investigation. Counsel, as well as a law enforcement witness,
also advised the trial court that although these individuals
were shot at, "they happen to be victims because
they're witnesses, " and PBSO was "treating
them as witnesses more so than victims."
maintained that these facts made no difference because: (a)
exceptions to the Act must be narrowly construed; (b)
information is exempt from disclosure only if
expressly authorized by statute; (c) the Act unambiguously
provides that the identity of "victims" is not
"criminal investigative information" exempt from
disclosure; (d) the individuals who gave chase had been shot
at and were clearly "victims" of a crime; and (e)
the Act does not contain an exception to disclosure for
identifying information of "victims" who also
happen to be "witnesses." Sun-Sentinel then urged
the trial court to apply the Act, as plainly written, and
conclusion of the expedited hearing, the trial court orally
granted Sun-Sentinel's request and directed disclosure,
finding that these individuals - while primarily witnesses -
also were victims and, as a result, their identifying
information was specifically excluded from the definition of
"active criminal investigative information" and
hence outside the reach of this exemption. See
§ 119.011(3)(c)2., Fla. Stat. (2017). The trial court
also granted PBSO's request for a stay pending appeal. On
April 6, 2017 the trial court entered its final order on
Sun-Sentinel's complaint which memorialized its earlier
oral ruling. This appeal ensued. Our standard of review is de
novo. See Media Gen. Convergence, Inc. v. Chief Judge of
the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, 840 So.2d 1008, 1013
(Fla. 2003) (recognizing that a trial court's ruling
concerning the status of a public record is subject to
"de novo" review); Rhea ...