NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FLORIDA · Secret Courts · June 15, 2005
Media win appeal for sealed documents in rape-murder case
June 15, 2005 · The judge presiding over the trial of the man who allegedly raped and killed an 11-year-old Sarasota, Fla., girl wrongly sealed portions of discovery documents that are usually made public under state law, an intermediate appellate court ruled Friday.
In reversing a trial court order, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland ruled that the judge, on his own initiative, incorrectly raised and relied on privacy concerns to withhold the documents from the public.
Joseph P. Smith, who is charged with kidnaping, assaulting and killing Carlie Brucia, had asked the trial court to issue a blanket order sealing all discovery materials — information turned over to the defense by the prosecution — to avoid prejudicial pretrial publicity and preserve Smith’s right to a fair trial. Information related to a criminal investigation generally becomes public under section 119.07 of Florida law once the state discloses it to a criminal defendant. The Times Publishing Co., which owns the St. Petersburg Times, was allowed to intervene in the case to oppose Smith’s motion.
The trial court refused to impose a blanket order but agreed to seal FBI reports, witness statements and investigative reports, citing the “privacy concerns” of people named in the reports. The court, which noted that the reports contained information such as prior drug use and present medical conditions, relied on Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.220, which allows non-parties such as witnesses to challenge public disclosure of certain discovery information upon a showing of good cause.
The Times challenged the judge’s ruling to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, arguing none of the provisions of Rule 3.220 permitted the judge to take such action. In invalidating the judge’s order, the appeals court ruled that although Smith had originally requested the blanket sealing to ensure a fair trial, “no motion asserting a privacy claim and no ‘showing of good cause’ was made by any non-party — or by any party.”
Even if a non-party had asked the trial judge to block disclosure, sealing the records still would have been improper “because the trial court failed to make the required determination showing that ‘closure is necessary to prevent an imminent threat to [the nonparties’] privacy rights,'” the appeals court ruled, quoting a 1992 Florida Supreme Court case, Post-Newsweek Stations, Fla. Inc. v. Doe.
The court suggested that the judge could deny public access to discovery documents under a state law, section 119.011(3)( c )(5), if disclosure would “defame or threaten the safety of a victim or witness,” but noted that the “privacy concerns” previously cited may not fall within the scope of that exemption.
(Times Publishing Co. v. State; Media Counsel: George K. Rahdert and Penelope T. Bryan, Rahdert, Steele, Bryan, Bole & Reynolds, St. Petersburg, Fla.) — KK