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Right to publish: Withheld identity of deputy involved in fatal shooting revealed

Kurt Hoffman head shot
Sarasota County Sheriff's Office
Sarasota Sheriff Kurt Hoffman refuses to identify deputies.

That practice has sparked a legal challenge involving the identity of two police officers in Tallahassee that is now before the Florida Supreme Court.

Sarasota County Sheriff Kurt Hoffman doesn’t want the public to know the identity of two deputies involved in the shooting of 65-year-old Jeremiah Evans and has gone to great lengths to keep their names, which are public information under Florida’s Public Records Act, a secret.

Evans was shot dead on April 1 while two Sarasota sheriff’s deputies served an eviction on him in the condo where he’d been living the past eleven years. The State Attorney’s Office determined that Evans, who is black, held a knife in a "threatening manner” and "took steps toward the deputies” when one of them opened fire.

Prosecutors cleared the deputies of wrongdoing, but the public still doesn’t know who they are. Sheriff Hoffman claims their identities are shielded by Marsy’s Law, which was passed by voters in 2018 ostensibly to protect crime victims. The law makes no mention of law enforcement, but the Sarasota sheriff’s office and other police agencies across the state have been using it to hide the identities of cops involved in fatal shootings based on the claim that they are crime victims themselves and shouldn’t be subject to public scrutiny.

That practice obviously runs afoul of government transparency standards and has sparked a legal challenge involving the identity of two police officers in Tallahassee that is now before the Florida Supreme Court.

Hoffman, however, has gone a step further. When the Sarasota Herald Tribune received a State Attorney’s Office report with the last names of the deputies left unredacted, the paper was taking steps to publish them. That’s when Sheriff Hoffman went to court and obtained an emergency injunction to block the newspaper from publishing the names.

This, according to numerous legal experts, is a clearly prohibited prior restraint of the press.

"Prior restraint is the government telling a publication they cannot publish information it has obtained lawfully,” said Ed Birk, general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation, which is party to the Florida Supreme Case. "The U.S. Supreme Court has never upheld a prior restraint. It’s unlawful. The newspaper came by the information lawfully. The mistake was made by the State Attorney’s office. It’s not the newspaper’s job to enforce the public records law.”

Perhaps the best known case of prior restraint in history came with the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. During that controversy, journalist Ben Bagdikian said, "The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish.” Adhering to that adage, we at the Florida Center for Government Accountability are publishing the identity of one of the two deputies present at the time of the Evans shooting.

Her name is Stephanie Graham and she’s a veteran of at least 18 years on the force. Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kaitlyn Perez said in a press conference that a female deputy pulled the trigger, but FLCGA News hasn’t been able to independently confirm whether it was Graham or the other deputy at the scene who fired the fatal shots.

Like the Sarasota Herald Tribune, FLCGA News came by Graham’s identity in an entirely legal fashion, in this case old-fashioned digging through public documents.

The sheriff’s office disclosed that the same deputies involved in the shooting had served eviction papers on Evans’ door on March 31, the day before he died. A simple look at the writ of possession served on that day shows it was signed by a deputy with the initials "SCG” with badge number 1515. Further checks of similar publicly available writs conclusively show that Graham’s badge number is indeed 1515.

While Graham’s history with the agency isn’t known (a so-far unfulfilled public records request has been made for Graham’s IA jacket and personnel file), she was involved in a long and drawn-out federal civil suit involving a past use of force.

During a 2004 drug raid involving a package of ketamine, Graham was accused of using excessive force on a 63-year-old woman named Patsy Croom, who was visiting her son’s home at the time and had no involvement in any criminal activity.

Croom, who suffered from acute rheumatoid arthritis and had undergone numerous surgeries due to the condition, was gardening in the front yard of the home in a one-piece bathing suit when Graham and a team of masked deputies in all black stormed the home with guns drawn.

When ordered to "hit the ground,” Croom said she was getting down as fast as she could but suffered from arthritis. That’s when Graham pushed her to the ground, put her foot on her back, and held a pistol to her head, according to Croom. Graham held her in that position for roughly eight minutes, according to the lawsuit.

Croom suffered additional medical issues due to the rough treatment and in her lawsuit alleged a violation of her Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure. The suit was dismissed and the appellate court – though "sympathetic to Croom’s plight and frustration” – upheld the ruling.

While Graham doesn’t appear to have a history of repeat incidents, a failure to disclose the identities of deputies involved in fatal shootings could serve to protect and enable a cop who does have chronic issues, said Birk.

"The result of keeping this information from public view is that bad conduct does not get corrected,” he said. "The whole point is to correct and improve, not just condemn.”

After a two-hour hearing on Tuesday, Circuit Judge Charles Williams is expected to rule within a week on whether or not to lift the injunction against the Sarasota Herald Tribune. The use of Marsy’s Law to protect the identity of police officers, meanwhile, is still waiting at the feet of the Supreme Court.

Interestingly, Sheriffs Mike Chitwood and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, of Volusia and Pinellas counties, respectively, have filed motions to support releasing the names of police officers involved in deadly shootings.

"This disclosure of deputies’ names not only promotes transparency and accountability but helps to rebuild the eroding public trust in law enforcement,” Chitwood wrote in his motion. "[The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office] desires to continue disclosing the names of deputies who are involved in the use of deadly force while in the execution of their official duties in order to continue promoting transparency and accountability.”

Birk echoed those words.

"In giving the authority to our law enforcement personnel to arrest and use deadly force, we ask for a lot in return,” he said. "And that is to know what they are doing and subject their job to public scrutiny. That’s our terms.”

This story was published in partnership with the Florida Center for Governmental Responsibility.