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Court upholds newspaper's right to print name of undercover officer

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Court upholds newspaper’s right to print name of undercover officer

  • The trial court properly denied a sheriff’s attempt to bar publication of the name of an undercover deputy, an appeals court ruled.

Sep. 26, 2003 — In a unanimous decision, a Florida appeals court ruled Wednesday that the Lakeland Ledger had the right to print the name of an undercover police officer who had been cleared of wrongdoing for a fatal shooting.

With the one-word disposition “Affirmed,” the court upheld the trial judge’s August 2002 order allowing the Ledger to publish the name of Deputy Michael Burdette. At the time, Burdette was under investigation for shooting a 22-year old man while on a drug raid.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office had asserted that revealing Burdette’s identity would endanger him and jeopardize ongoing investigations. But the trial judge, Ronald Herring, rejected that argument.

“The testimony has been that there [are] unsubstantiated threats that could possibly endanger confidential informants and the investigations,” Judge Herring said in a ruling from the bench. “[But] that happens every time an undercover officer comes into court once they make a case.”

Although the one-word ruling left its reasoning unknown, the appeals court apparently agreed. It issued its decision just one week after hearing oral arguments.

“We’re pleased with the decision,” said attorney Jim Lake, who represented the Ledger. “The sheriff’s office did not make anywhere close to the showing required to impose a prior restraint on publication.”

The case arose after the Ledger learned that Burdette was the shooter in a July 26, 2002 drug raid that resulted in the fatal shooting. The Ledger voluntarily informed the sheriff’s office that it planned to print Burdette’s name. In response, the sheriff’s office first tried to persuade the paper to withhold the information, then filed a complaint seeking an injunction.

The sheriff’s office has said it will not appeal.

(Crow v. Lakeland Ledger Publishing Co.; Media Counsel: James B. Lake, Holland & Knight, Tampa, Fla.) JM

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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