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Florida public records exemption law allows Bob Saget death photos to remain private

Published on: 02/16/2022

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A Florida judge’s ruling Wednesday on records related to Bob Saget’s death investigation will keep sensitive information, including video and photos of his body, in the hands of the late actor’s loved ones for the time being. Saget’s family has an arcane 21-year-old Florida law — and the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt — to thank for allowing them to keep those records private. The court ruling in favor of Saget’s wife, Kelly Rizzo, and three daughters, found that Saget’s family would suffer “irreparable harm” if the records were released to the public now. Circuit Judge Vincent Chiu added in his ruling that the “plaintiffs have a clear legal right or interest in the Protected Records as the surviving spouse and children of Mr. Saget.” See Migrants Sew Mouths Shut In Protest, Effort To Move Toward U.S. Border NBC sports reporter Michele Tafoya leaves journalism for GOP Legal analyst's predictions for Supreme Court decisions this year Watch: Sen. Tom Cotton Blocks U.S. Attorney Nominees Over DOJ Feud CDC expected to update indoor mask guidance U.S., NATO see no sign of Russian troop pullback Tucker: Democrats believe giving up power would end democracy New voting laws shaping Texas primaries Democrats float $30B in new COVID relief funding as COVID cases decline Text messages reveal new host of characters lobbying Trump before Jan. 6 Hawley calls for 'investigation' over Durham probe revelations US and NATO presence grows in Poland amid potential Russian threats against Ukraine Russia has "no intention" to invade Ukraine, deputy U.N. ambassador says Watters: Democratic foolishness has been completely obvious Russian jets buzz U.S. surveillance planes in the Mediterranean European Union ambassador: "This is a crisis that Russia created" Rules governing the release of autopsy reports and related documents vary state-to-state. In Florida, exemptions apply to photographs, video and recordings from the death investigation, as well as photos and videos that may have been included in the autopsy report. “That information is exempt from our public records laws. It’s not subject to public disclosure. The medical examiner is prohibited from releasing it to anyone but the family,” said Virginia Hamrick, a staff attorney at the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based watchdog that keeps track of information related to the state’s public records laws. Rizzo and her daughters had filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Orange County Sheriff John Mina and the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office. Both agencies are handling the probe into Saget’s death after the comedian, 65, was found dead Jan. 9 in his hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. The suit was filed in response to media outlets filing public-records requests for specific documents related to the investigation, including photographs, video and audio recordings, as well as what the suit referred to as "statutorily protected autopsy information." Saget’s family argued in their suit that “no legitimate public interest would be served by the release or dissemination of the Records to the public.” Their lawsuit came days after it was revealed the “Full House” actor died of head trauma . The Saget family said in a statement that officials concluded he accidentally hit the back of his head on something and went to sleep, noting no drugs or alcohol were involved. Wednesday's ruling surprised Dr. Stephen Nelson, who chairs the Florida Medical Examiners Commission and is the chief medical examiner in an adjoining Central Florida district. Nelson said that while photos and videos are exempt under Florida law, an autopsy report isn't. “The only records that wouldn't be exempt would be the autopsy report, toxicology report and things like that … I’m surprised the judge could countermand state law,” Nelson said. “Anything that we do that’s paid for with taxpayer dollars is a public record, except for those things for which there are a public-records exemption: photographs, video and audio recordings." Earnhardt crash led to new law Prior to 2001, everything related to death investigations was public record in Florida. But that year state lawmakers passed legislation making exemptions after Earnhardt's death, at the urging of his family and NASCAR. His death came just days after the Orlando Sentinel published an investigative series on the need for safer head and neck protection devices for race car drivers. The newspaper wanted experts to review the autopsy evidence to see if Earnhardt’s death would have been prevented with the safety devices. However, following tearful testimony from Earnhardt’s widow Teresa, who had pleaded to lawmakers for her family's privacy, then-Gov. Jeb Bush and leaders in the Florida Legislature, who had a friendly relationship with NASCAR, passed a law to seal autopsy photo and video records. The death records pertaining to Earnhardt and Saget aren’t the only ones subject to court challenges. In the 1990s, Florida judges restricted access to the autopsy photos of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace and the victims of serial killer Danny Rolling.

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