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Wakulla Area Times article July 2011--Public Records Exemption Well Worth Passing

Public Records Exemption Was Something Well Worth Passing

By Sheriff David Harvey

I recently wrote letters to Florida lawmakers including, Senator Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff, Rep. Rachel Burgin and Rep. Janet Cruz showing my support for a bill that passed in the 2011 Legislative Session that exempted death videos, photographs and audio recordings from the Florida Public Records law. This bill is known as HB 411.

The final step for the bill to pass was a vote by Florida senators. The margin of approval was 34-4. The Florida House of Representatives also passed a similar measure earlier in the 2011 session. A two-thirds vote was required to create the exemption to the state Public Records law. Gov. Rick Scott made the new bill official when he signed his name to it in early June.

The new law states that pictures, sounds or videos covered by the exemption can only be viewed or heard by family members of the deceased. Otherwise a court order will be required to open the records for public inspection.

Below is the wording in the letter that I sent to the Florida lawmakers:

Dear Honorable Florida Lawmakers,

I want to applaud you for your efforts in both the Senate and House of Representatives for your work on SB 416 and HB 411. As a veteran Florida sheriff I think it is important to exempt from Florida Public records videos, photographs and audio recordings that depict someone dying.

There is no reason why anyone from the public needs to view autopsy photographs, view videos or listen to recordings of someone’s last words as their life is ending. At the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office, we are cognizant of the feelings of those family members who have to go on with their lives and who will have to live with the sights or sounds of a tragic event in their minds for the rest of their lives.

We recently investigated a double homicide in the county where one of the stabbing victims made a 911 call to my office seeking assistance. The media has requested a copy of this gruesome recording without really realizing what is contained on the recordings.

I feel like making the recordings public to our local television stations would have a devastating effect on the family members who survive the two men who died that early morning.
 If an agency wants to go through the court system to obtain materials then a judge should consider and rule on the matter. Again, thank you for your efforts to eliminate this unnecessary part of the Florida Public Records.

Sincerely,

David F. Harvey
Wakulla County Sheriff

Fortunately, we live in Wakulla County where homicide investigations are not a daily, weekly or even monthly occurrence. But from time to time we do find ourselves out in the field combing through evidence to solve a murder. As part of the investigative process it is necessary to take photographs as we get ready to take our evidence to the State Attorney’s office and prosecute a suspect for murder.

The crime scenes are never a pleasant experience and the law enforcement officials who work these scenes are affected by what they see and hear for the rest of their lives. This is true of the dispatchers who have to listen to the live 911 calls as they are received.

Veteran law enforcement officers will be able to share stories of murder scene memories even if their investigation occurred many years ago. The gruesome investigations are not limited to homicide cases as many traffic accidents have tragic results and sometimes involve multiple victims and children. The individuals who work these cases will never forget them. It is considered part of the job, but it is a very difficult part.

In many cases counseling is offered to staff members to help them cope with what they have heard or seen in a case. I recognized the members of my staff who worked the crime scene and handled the 911 calls from the most recent double homicide. I know their shift on that second to last day in March was difficult. They showed great courage and professionalism as they completed their tasks.

So in a Legislative Session where lawmakers altered the Florida Retirement System and took a bite out of state government in Tallahassee, at least we can applaud the work of the legislature as they addressed this very important issue.

Since 2000, the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office has investigated 12 homicide cases involving 13 victims. Two of the victims were killed March 30, 2011 and the last one before the McKenzie-Wilson case was Nov. 29, 2009. One of the 2000 cases involved a woman who was killed in Leon County but her body was located in Wakulla.

You have to go all the way back to July 27, 1997 to find another double homicide with the King-Spears murder. Prior to that case you have to go back to March 10, 1989 when we recovered a child in a septic tank and investigated the death of three individuals in a Wakulla County sinkhole. For members of the WCSO who worked those cases in 1989 and 1997, the memories are still fresh in their minds.

It is a comfort knowing that when Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill and it became law, the sheriff’s office will not need to share videos, photographs and recordings unless family members of the victims want to receive what we discovered in our investigation.

In my career as Wakulla County Sheriff, I was first elected in 1976, since that time we have had 35 murder cases involving 39 victims. Each one of these cases had its own unique set of facts and each case was tragic in its own way. But at least we now know we won’t have to follow through with public records requests that include video recordings, audio recordings or photographs involving death.

 

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