'Wheel of Fugitive' suit: Ivey can say whatever he wants, even if 'false or malicious,' lawyers say

Attorneys defending Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey against a defamation suit over his popular "Wheel of Fugitive" show argue the sheriff is allowed to say whatever he wants, however he wants, in the course of his duties — even if it's "false or malicious," according to a recent court filing.

In a motion to dismiss the case filed last week with the Brevard County courts, Ivey's attorneys argued that public officials are "absolutely immune" from defamation claims for statements made in the course of their official duties under Florida case law, regardless of whether the statements are true or harmful.

"(A) sheriff is absolutely immune from suit for defamation if he chooses to make public statements accusing a community member of committing a crime, even if those statements are alleged to be false or malicious," attorneys wrote in a Feb. 14 filing.

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David Austin Gay is suing Ivey and the Brevard County Sheriff's Office after he was falsely included in four episodes of "Wheel of Fugitive" in 2021 while he was either already in jail or legally released from custody.

In the social media show, patterned off the "Wheel of Fortune" gameshow, Ivey spins a wheel with pictures of people he says are on the run from the law and picks a "fugitive of the week," encouraging them to turn themselves in and citizens to call in tips that could lead to their arrest.

A FLORIDA TODAY investigation found Gay was one of 60 non-fugitives included on the wheel between February 2020 and February 2021 who were either in jail at the time the episode aired, already free or had no active arrest warrant.

Brevard attorney Jessica Travis, who is representing Gay, has argued the experience cost her client a job and damaged his reputation and mental health. He is seeking unspecified damages in the case, including for loss of income and pain and suffering.

Ivey's attorney cite 2008 case from Martin County

Attorneys for the sheriff are seeking to have the case tossed, however, citing prior cases they argue give Ivey the right to say whatever he likes in his official duties as the county's chief law enforcement officer.

"Even where allegedly false or malicious statements are distributed to the news media for broad public consumption," the courts have held officials are safe from defamation, the Feb. 14 motion said. "It is immaterial whether the statements were true or false, whether they were motivated by malice or ill-will, or whether they were made with reckless disregard for the truth."

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled such protections are necessary to "safeguard the ability of public officials to faithfully and fearlessly execute the duties of their office," the motion said.

Ivey's attorneys cited a 2008 case against then-Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder, who was sued for defamation by a man included in a news release naming "deadbeat parents" who allegedly failed to pay court-ordered child support.

An appeals court threw out the case, ruling that "the purpose of the release was to induce delinquent parents to pay their child support, a proper government function," Ivey's attorneys quoted in the filing.

Travis declined to comment for this story. A message seeking comment from Ivey or the Brevard County Sheriff's Office was not immediately returned.

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey thanks his supporters after winning reelection to sheriff in this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo. Mandatory Credit: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey thanks his supporters after winning reelection to sheriff in this Nov. 3, 2020 file photo. Mandatory Credit: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

Miami-Dade mayor won similar defamation case in 2020

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, pointed out that Florida officials have used the argument to shield themselves from accountability in the past.

A Miami-Dade county mayor evaded defamation claims in 2020 after a state court ruled he was acting within the scope of his duties when he published allegedly defamatory statements in a termination letter to a county employee, Jewett said.

"I think the question will come down to, was this (Wheel of Fugitive) within the scope of his duties?" Jewett said.

2017: Sheriff Wayne Ivey demonstrates the 'Wheel of Fugitive' board
2017: Sheriff Wayne Ivey demonstrates the 'Wheel of Fugitive' board

"The presumption will be that he is on solid grounds," Jewett said. "He'll argue that was the whole point, is to try to bring attention so that either the fugitives will turn themselves in or that people will see them and get them, and so if he makes a mistake, that's just too bad."

While law enforcement officers generally have special obligations to respect a person's rights in other aspects of their duties, the law shows that may not extend to what they say, Jewett said.

"I think you would at least have an ethical obligation to ensure that the people on the wheel are in fact fugitives," Jewett said. "But apparently you might not have a legal obligation."

Eric Rogers is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Rogers at 321-242-3717 or esrogers@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter: @EricRogersFT.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: 'Wheel of Fugitive': Brevard sheriff doesn't have to tell truth, lawyers say