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Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office v. Sun-Sentinel Co., LLC

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

September 6, 2017

PALM BEACH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE and RIC L. BRADSHAW, In His Official Capacity as Palm Beach County Sheriff, Appellants,

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Donald W. Hafele, Judge; L.T. Case No. 50-2017-CA-002718-XXXX-MB.

          Kara Berard Rockenbach of Methe & Rockenbach, P.A., West Palm Beach, for appellants.

          Dana J. McElroy, Rachel Fugate and James J. McGuire of Thomas & LoCicero PL, Fort Lauderdale, for appellee.

          Hanzman, Michael A., Associate Judge.


         Appellants, 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.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In 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 personal injury.

         Shortly 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.

         As 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."

         Sun-Sentinel 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 compel disclosure.

         At the 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 ...

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