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Florida Department of Corrections v. Miami Herald Media Co.

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

August 9, 2019

Florida Department of Corrections and Mark S. Inch, as Secretary of Florida Department of Corrections, Appellants,
v.
Miami Herald Media Company, publisher of The Miami Herald, Julie Brown, and Casey Frank, Appellees.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from the Circuit Court for Leon County. Charles W. Dodson, Judge.

          Candy L. Messersmith of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, P.A., Orlando, for Appellants.

          Sanford L. Bohrer and Scott D. Ponce, of Holland & Knight, LLP, Miami, for Appellees.

          WINOKUR, J.

         The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) appeals the trial court's final order finding that the Miami Herald[1] established good cause to grant the newspaper access to requested prison video recordings. We reverse and find that the trial court abused its discretion in light of the Miami Herald's admission that it no longer needed the footage.

         I.

         In August 2015, the Miami Herald made separate public records requests asking DOC for specific video footage depicting the area around an inmate's cell at the Suwannee Correctional Institution (the Suwannee footage) and the outside shower area of an inmate dorm at Sumter Correctional Institution (the Sumter footage).

         DOC denied both requests, stating that the requested video recordings were confidential and exempt from Florida's public records laws. Specifically, DOC claimed that the footage fell under the "security plan" exemption to Florida's public disclosure laws. §§ 119.071(3)(a) & 281.301(1), Fla. Stat. As a result, the Miami Herald filed a complaint seeking injunctive and mandamus relief requesting that the trial court compel DOC to produce the footage. After reviewing the video footage in camera and conducting hearings on the matter, the trial court issued an order finding that the videos fell within the security plan exemption and were exempt from public disclosure.

         In April 2016, the Miami Herald filed a motion for reconsideration asking that the trial court reassess its order due to the legislature's then-recent amendments to sections 119.071(3)(a)3.d. and 281.301(2)(d) providing for a "good cause" exception to an exemption from public disclosure. Specifically, the Miami Herald argued that its goal of gathering information regarding inmate treatment at state prisons and reporting it to the public constituted good cause. DOC denied that the newspaper provided sufficient good cause to warrant disclosure of the footage and reiterated its security concerns over its release.

         In May 2017, the trial court granted the Miami Herald's motion for reconsideration noting the "awards [Miami Herald journalist Julie Brown] has received for her reporting on Florida's prisons" and concluding that "[d]isclosure of the video recordings in this case, combined with the extremely important right of freedom of the press, in my opinion constitutes good cause." At a subsequent hearing, the Miami Herald advised the trial court that it would no longer wanted the videos as they were no longer newsworthy.

         In February 2018, the trial court issued its Final Order noting that the Miami Herald no longer wanted copies of the security footage, but still found that the newspaper had shown good cause to satisfy the exception to the public disclosure exemption laws. As a result, the trial court ruled that DOC was legally obligated to provide the Miami Herald access to the videos.

         II.

         Records related to the physical security of a State correctional facility are exempt from disclosure under Florida's public records and safety and security services laws.[2] The applicable statutes provide exceptions to exemption, and in 2016, the Legislature added a provision to the exceptions permitting disclosure "[u]pon a showing of good cause before a court of competent jurisdiction." Ch. 2016-178, ...


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