911 call release laws vary wildly by state

A New York Times search finds that nearly half of states don’t have a 911-specific law on the books

The public airing of 911 calls has long been a contentious subject, as they reveal the raw emotion, fear and sadness that inherently come with any tragedy. Some feel that public release of 911 calls is necessary, giving the public the full scope of a given tragedy or story. But others feel that those calls are private, revealing too much about the inner workings of a given event.

With the recent release of 911 calls associated with the tragedy of the Newtown school shootings, the New York Times law blog decided to take a look into the various laws surrounding the release of 911 calls. And as expected when laws are determined on a state-by-state basis, there seems to be no general consensus for how to govern 911 call releases throughout the country.

The search found that about half of states, including Connecticut, have no specific provision within state law concerning 911 calls in particular. In these states, 911 calls are treated similarly to other public records: They may be shielded from the public for public safety or privacy reasons, but they are otherwise readily accessible.

There are some states that also treat 911 calls similarly to public records, but only with slight changes. Many states, such as Florida, only require that personally identifying information must be excluded from the 911 call before it can be released. Meanwhile, in Arizona, the state has the option to release only transcripts rather than the actual calls if officials feel that privacy is a concern.

But then, there are states on the other end of the spectrum — those that attempt to keep 911 calls as private as possible. Wyoming state law bars not only the release of audio, but also any information obtained by an operator through a 911 call without a court order. Thanks a 2011 North Dakota law (PDF), a person may “person may listen to the audio recording, but may not copy or record the audio.”

In the case of the Newtown 911 recordings in particular, a state attorney argued that they should be excluded from public record through the Freedom of Information Act because they depicted accounts of child abuse. But a Connecticut judge ruled that argument “attenuated at best” and ordered the tapes’ release on Nov. 26.

 

However, 911 callers aren’t the only ones with privacy concerns, as shown by these InsideCounsel stories:

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Assistant Editor

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Zach Warren

Zach Warren is Assistant Editor of InsideCounsel magazine, where he oversees online content submissions and administers InsideCounsel's enewsletters. Zach specializes in new media and multimedia...

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