February 6, 2006

Jacksonville Newspaper Recovers Attorneys’ Fees, Forces Police to Reveal Officer’s Name

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Jennifer A. Mansfield

A Jacksonville, Florida newspaper recovered more than $8,700 in attorneys’ fees from a police department that had unlawfully withheld the name of an officer who fatally shot a kidnapping suspect.

On October 11, 2005, an officer from the Jacksonville Beach Police Department shot and killed an armed suspect who attempted to burglarize and kidnap a Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleader. The Florida Times-Union requested that police provide a copy of the incident report and the name of the police officer involved in the shooting. Initially, the police chief refused to even discuss the incident with the newspaper and, despite Florida’s extremely favorable public records law, refused to furnish the document. After a formal public records request, the city’s attorney contended that the name of the police officer was protected from disclosure under an exemption to the public records law that provides a written complaint filed against a law enforcement officer shall be kept confidential. The police department argued that after the shooting, it internally generated a written complaint against the officer involved – the standard procedure the department follows for all shootings involving an officer. After further back-and-forth with the newspaper, the city released the incident report, but redacted the officer’s name.

In response, the newspaper filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the state circuit court in Duval County. The newspaper argued that the statutory exemption from Florida’s public records law relied upon by the city only applied to situations where a formal, written complaint has been filed against a law enforcement officer, and did not apply to the police department’s internal procedures. To hold otherwise would allow the exception to swallow the rule.

The chief judge of the judicial circuit immediately held a hearing, and he granted the petition the same day. The judge applied common sense and held that the exemption could not be meant to apply to routine paperwork that police generate after this type of an incident.

It would appear that the type of internal complaint meant in [Florida Statutes] §112.533(2)(a) is not one that is automatically filed in every case. To accept any other interpretation of the statute would result in its potential application in every case of an investigation of a law enforcement officer where the agency merely reduces the complaint to writing. This is clearly not the intent of §112.533(2)(a).

Having found the police department had wrongfully withheld the name of the police officer involved in the shooting, the Florida court ordered the police chief to fax a copy of the incident report to the newspaper immediately. After the document was delivered, the city did not dispute The Florida Times-Union’s right to attorneys’ fees and costs, and paid every cent demanded by the newspaper without a court hearing.

Holland & Knight represented The Florida Times-Union in this matter.

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