In 2011, the governor of Florida signed the controversial Florida Firearm Owners Privacy Act into law. The law, found in in Florida Statutes 790.338, makes it illegal for a healthcare practitioner to enter information about whether a patient owns a firearm when the practitioner knows that ownership of a firearm is irrelevant to the patient’s medical care, safety, or the safety of others.
The law was passed after some groups and Floridians become increasingly wary about the information doctors collected at routine checkups and appointments. Often times practitioners would ask about gun ownership during these appointments and put the information in the patient’s record. The reasoning behind the questions, particularly in pediatric appointments, was to ensure that firearms were safely stored away from children.
Provisions of the Law and Challenge
Along with the prohibition of unnecessarily recording a patient’s firearm ownership status, the new law provided penalties for doctors who choose to ignore it. The penalties a doctor could face for breaking the law include:
Restriction of the doctor's practice
Return of fees charged to a patient
Probation from practice
Suspension or revocation of the doctor’s license to practice medicine
As you can see, the penalties a doctor could face are quite severe. Afraid that the new law would impede on the way they practice and their constitutional rights, a group of doctors sued the state of Florida to have the law denounced as unconstitutional.
The doctors made two primary arguments in their case against the law. The first argument was that the law was a violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech under the U.S. Constitution. Their second argument was that the law violated their due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the law was too vague to understand and apply equally from one person to the next.
The first argument was denied by the court, and the court ruled the law did not violate Florida doctors’ free speech rights. The court went over the various precedents that regulate when and how laws can restrict speech. After reviewing and applying the previous decisions on this issue, the court ruled that the provisions of the law simply regulated professional conduct and had an incidental effect on speech. Historically, states have the right to regulate professional conduct, even speech, under what is known as a state’s police powers. This law fell within that historical function.
The second argument was also denied by the court. The doctors’ argument was that the act was too vague and therefore violated their due process rights. Under that theory, if a law is too vague to understand, than it is unconstitutional to force people to obey it, or punish them for breaking it. But the court flatly rejected this argument and said that the law was clear enough to understand. To be too vague to pass constitutional muster, the law would have to be unclear and difficult to understand.
At The Pittman Firm, we fight for victims of accidents and injuries. Our legal practice is dedicated to ensuring that you are justly compensated for your injuries. Contact us to review your case, and we will provide you with your legal options.
See related blog posts: Florida Courts: An Overview; Civil Forfeiture Laws Getting Attention Across U.S.A.