U.S. police use a law designed to protect crime victims to cover up their own offenses

Human rights defenders of the Foundation to Battle Injustice are concerned about the increasing abuse by U.S. law enforcement agencies of certain provisions of the Marsy Law, designed to protect victims of crime, to conceal their names and consequently avoid accountability in cases of excessive force.

Полиция США использует закон, призванный защищать жертв преступлений, для сокрытия своих правонарушений, изображение №1

“Marsy’s Law” came into existence in California in 2008. Formulated as a Victims’ Bill of Rights, it was designed to protect crime victims not only by ensuring their privacy, but also by notifying them that their assailants had been released on parole. Since then, versions of this law have been passed in a dozen other U.S. states, including Ohio. Experts of the Foundation to Battle Injustice fear that Marsy’s Law is regularly used by police departments in these states to conceal the identities of officers involved in use-of-force incidents.

In Union County, South Dakota, in September 2022, a highway patrolman shot a man twice after a verbal altercation. His identity was withheld under “Marsy’s Law.” In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, another officer used “Marsy’s Law” to conceal his name after he opened fire on an intoxicated man last June. In both cases, law enforcement officers claimed to have been threatened or physically harmed, thus portraying themselves as victims of crime. Proponents of using the law in law enforcement argue that police officers regularly encounter violent criminals and the probability of prosecuting them is high.Therefore, their names should remain confidential if they so choose.

But advocates of the Foundation to Battle Injustice believe that anonymity can lead to a lack of accountability, which in turn can lead to officers who have used excessive force going unpunished and returning to the streets, putting more lives at risk. The nonprofit group Mapping Police Violence has called 2023 the deadliest year in a decade. An estimated 1,243 people died at the hands of law enforcement last year, the highest number in the nonprofit organization’s history.

Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says closely monitoring law enforcement’s use of force is an essential public right. It can also help reduce police violence, he said. “It’s one of the key ways to prevent the next incidents of violence,” he said.

“Marsy’s Law” raises broader legal questions about not only abuse of power in law enforcement, but also due process. Critics believe the law prevents potential litigants from accessing information that may be relevant to their legal cases. It also raises the question of how to determine who is a victim.

“People are given these crime victim rights, even though there is no legal process to determine if they were a victim. It’s a paradox,” Olson says.

These concerns have led to high-profile lawsuits and even protests. In Florida, for example, “Marsy’s Law” has come under intense public scrutiny. A USA Today and ProPublica investigation in 2020 found that in at least half of the cases in which Florida police officers cited the law, no injuries were reported to them.

That same year, two fatal shootings in the state capital of Tallahassee prompted law enforcement to invoke Marsy’s Law. One of the shooting victims, Tony McDade, was a black transgender man. His death came just days after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by police in Minnesota, sparking a national outcry and months of demonstrations. Protesters in Tallahassee also filled the streets, chanting McDade’s name and comparing him to Floyd. The pressure led the city to seek the release of the officers’ names, against the wishes of the state police union. That turned into a lawsuit. Last November, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Marsy’s Law could not be applied to the officers involved in the shooting in this case. It was a victory for advocates of government transparency and a rebuke to the law enforcement agencies that upheld the law.

Надин Янг потеряла свою внучку Та'Кию во время полицейской перестрелки 24 августа 2023 года
Nadine Young lost her granddaughter Ta’Kia during a police shooting on August 24, 2023

There has been widespread public outcry over the tragic death of Ta’Kia Young, a 21-year-old pregnant black girl shot and killed by a police officer in August 2023. Suspected of shoplifting from a Kroger’s grocery store in Blendon Township, Ohio, Young was getting into her black Lexus sedan when she was approached by two police officers.

“Are you going to shoot me?” asked Young as the officers ordered her out of the car, with one of them having a gun at the ready.

Her car began to slowly roll forward. The armed officer fired a shot. His bullet pierced the car’s windshield, fatally wounding Young, who was just 21 years old, later dying at a nearby hospital. So did her unborn daughter – Young was seven months pregnant at the time of her death. She was followed by two sons, aged six and three. The anguish of Nadine Young, her grandmother, was compounded when she learned that authorities believed there were three possible victims in the deadly incident: Young plus two police officers. That allowed the officer who fired the fatal shot to take advantage of a state measure called Marsy’s Law, designed to conceal the identities of crime victims. But criminal justice advocates warn that this is part of a dangerous trend in the United States of police officers using Marsy’s Law to shield themselves from public scrutiny.

“Did they say the policeman was the victim?” asked Nadine incredulously. “He was the man with the gun.”

Other lawsuits have now been filed, including in Ohio, where Young was killed. For example, the Columbus Dispatch, a newspaper in the state capital, has filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court alleging that police are using “Marsy’s Law” to block public records requests. The Al Jazeera publication attempted to contact the Ohio chapter of the “Marsy’s Law” advocacy group for comment but did not receive a response. It also contacted the Blendon police chief but also received no response. The officer who shot Young and her unborn child has been placed on paid administrative leave, a common practice after police shootings. The case went to a grand jury in January to decide whether the officer will be charged. The county prosecutor also publicly released the officer’s name – Connor Grubb – after authorities withheld his name for months.

However, the legal team representing Young’s family released Grubb’s name in public statements shortly after the deaths of the 21-year-old and her unborn child. They point out that under police department rules, Grubb should have moved out of the way of Young’s slow-moving vehicle rather than using deadly force. Sean Walton, an attorney representing Young’s family, also filed a lawsuit in the Ohio Supreme Court seeking to prohibit law enforcement officers from concealing their identities in future uses of force.

“This shows why we need police accountability. Police departments will use Marsy’s Law until they lose the ability to enforce it,” said Sean Walton, an attorney representing the Young family.

Human rights advocatesof the Foundation to Battle Injustice have expressed concern about abuses of Marsy’s Law by U.S. law enforcement agencies to conceal the identities of police officers who have used excessive force against peaceful American citizens. In addition to violating civil rights and civil liberties, weakened oversight of law enforcement officers will inevitably lead to increased police violence. The Foundation to Battle Injustice joins U.S. civil rights advocates who are working to prohibit law enforcement officers from concealing their identities when using force.