Appeals court rejects ‘Marsy’s Law’ arguments

by | Apr 20, 2020

In a victims’ rights dispute stemming from the molestation of a child, a state appeals court has rejected arguments that a Northwest Florida judge did not properly carry out a 2018 constitutional amendment known as “Marsy’s Law.”

The ruling Friday by a three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal came in an early test about how judges should apply the voter-approved amendment, which enshrined in the Florida Constitution a series of rights for crime victims.

The dispute focused heavily on attempts last year by two attorneys for the 8-year-old Washington County victim to file “notices of appearance” to represent her during the prosecution of a juvenile for the crime. A judge ruled that “there is no express language contained in (Marsy’s Law) that allows the victim or the victim’s representative to file a notice of appearance on behalf of the victim and become a party to criminal proceedings,” Friday’s appeals-court ruling said.

Attorneys for the victim, identified in court documents by the initials L.T., went to the Tallahassee-based appeals court in August, arguing, in part, that the judge’s decision “denies L.T. the right to have counsel of her choice to appear in court to speak and act on her behalf and to be in a position to advise L.T. about what her rights are at a given point in time in the case.”

But the appeals court said the judge recognized L.T.’s rights as a victim and allowed meaningful participation by her attorneys. It also indicated that nothing in the amendment clearly allowed the attorneys to file notices of appearance and play a broader role in the case.

“To accept L.T.’s arguments requires this court to interpret Marsy’s Law as fundamentally altering the criminal proceedings by implication,” said the 14-page ruling, written by Judge M. Kemmerly Thomas and joined by judges Joseph Lewis and Thomas Winokur. “Such an application is a vast departure from the traditional common law approach to criminal justice and without explicit text directing such a departure, we decline to do so. Here, the trial court carefully conducted the proceedings to achieve a balance between L.T.’s right to meaningful participation in the criminal proceeding and the juvenile defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

The passage of the Marsy’s Law amendment was part of a broader attempt to bolster victims’ rights rooted in the 1983 death of a California woman, Marsy Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend. Marsy Nicholas’ brother, Henry, is the co-founder of Broadcom Corp. and has spearheaded the Marsy’s Law movement nationally.

The amendment spelled out a series of rights for Florida crime victims, including a right to notice of court proceedings, a right to be heard in criminal proceedings and the right to confer with prosecutors about issues such as plea agreements and sentencing.

The juvenile defendant in the Northwest Florida molestation case entered a no-contest plea last year, which was followed by the victims’ attorneys filing the appeal, according to Friday’s ruling.

Other than the ruling, documents in the case are not publicly available on the 1st District Court of Appeal website. But the organization Marsy’s Law for Florida said in an August news release that it was the second time the organization had become involved in a case to enforce victims’ rights. A copy of the petition included with the news release identified the judge in the case as Lucas Taylor, though the appeals court did not identify him.

“We are working hard to help everyone involved in the criminal justice system understand that the system is now different because the people of Florida have decided that victims will have meaningful and enforceable rights,” Paul Hawkes, an attorney for the organization and a former 1st District Court of Appeal judge, said in the news release. “This case is part of that effort. Victim notice, victim presence, and the victim’s voice are no longer optional — they are mandatory. The changes in how Florida treats victims must be respected by judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and everyone else involved in the system even if it means they can’t do things the ‘way they have always’ done them in the past. These changes will make the system better and that is something of which everyone can be proud.”

But in Friday’s ruling, the appeals court said the constitutional amendment did not spell out procedures to enforce victims’ rights.

“As recognized in other jurisdictions, Marsy’s Law does not provide procedures and guidelines as to how its purpose is to be achieved,” Thomas wrote, citing a California case. “Even if we determined that the trial court departed from clearly established law in violation of L.T.’s victim rights, this court does not have the authority to craft rules for implementation of Marsy’s Law — a task of the Legislature and rulemaking agencies.”


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