Want to know about a crime in your neighborhood? New law is making it tough to get details

April 29, 2019 7:00 am

A Florida crime scene. You Tube screenshot.

It was the talk of the neighborhoods near a leafy Tallahassee subdivision called Killearn Estates.

On Jan. 12, a body was found at a major intersection at Killarney Way and Shamrock Street, where thousands of cars pass each day.

Tallahassee police would not talk about it for a full 48 hours. Social media accounts were buzzing. Finally reacting to pressure from citizens and local news operations, the police confirmed a body had been found in the middle of the road.  But police still would not identify the victim or describe what had happened. Residents of the area wanted to know if something had happened that put others in danger.

And who, everyone asked, is dead? And why? Some residents had even seen the body lying in the roadway as they headed to work the morning after it happened.

“Marsy’s Law,’’ police said as they withheld details for more than two weeks.

All over the state, law enforcement officials and reporters are struggling with a little-noticed state Constitutional Amendment that has seriously undermined Florida’s long standard of disclosing public information. Similar situations exist in the handful of other states where a similar amendment has passed. In Tallahassee, city police release nothing. The county sheriff releases routine information, but conceals the victim upon request.

Most troubling to some is the situation that’s created when no details of a crime are released.  Sometimes it means that a community may not know its citizens are at risk.  And residents will not get the kind of information they need to protect themselves.

Friends and family of the dead man posted information on Facebook indicating he was Gary Diskerud, 34. They created a Go Fund Me page. The Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, relying on social media and tracking down the driver, reported some details, but information from authorities remained scarce.  It would be April before police identified the driver of the car, Nikoleta Koikos, who was charged with drunk driving and vehicular homicide.

So far, the Florida Legislature has been of no help and there is no sign that officials can work this problem out. A bill to implement the amendment, filed by Sen. Lauren Book, a Democrat from Broward County, has not been heard in any committee and the Legislature is nearing the end of its annual session. Florida law enforcement officials and journalists have urged lawmakers to pass a law that would clarify the amendment.

All over Florida and in several other states, police agencies, reporters, prosecutors are struggling to deal with the impact of this new Constitutional Amendment 6 that voters approved last November.  In most states, crime information identifying accident victims, the names of law enforcement officers involved in the use of lethal force and other details of a crime have been routinely released.  Now, voters in Florida, South Dakota, California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma have approved Constitutional Amendments that dramatically limit the information that can become public.  In many of those states, including Florida, victims were already afforded rights that provided protections from those who might harm them.

Marsy’s Law was crafted by Henry Nicholas, the eccentric billionaire co-founder of Broadcom, a major computer chip maker in the nation’s tech industry.  Nicholas bankrolled California’s version of Marsy’s Law – named after his sister who was slain by an ex-boyfriend in 1983.  The decision to pursue Constitutional Amendments came after his sister’s killer confronted Nicholas’ mother in a supermarket. He’d been released on bail without anyone contacting the family. Nicholas used more than $70 million of his own money to bankroll Constitutional Amendments in six states, including Florida.

Broadcom was acquired by Singapore-based chip firm Avago in 2016 for $37-billion.  Meanwhile Nicholas has struggled with various drug charges, including a 2019 arrest in a Las Vegas hotel for possession of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, mushrooms and ecstasy. Nichols became a millionaire after the chips that Broadcom produced gained usage in voice, video, data and high speed multimedia products, a classic tech success story.

A few days ago, Tallahassee lawyer Paul Hawkes, attorney for Marsy’s Law in Florida, asked prosecutors throughout the state to explain what they are doing to comply with the amendment and protect the rights of victims.

Some of us hope there is also support for a citizen’s right to know what is happening in their neighborhood.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.