Criminal Law

Should 911 Calls Be Made Public?

  • It's not uncommon to hear recordings of actual 911 emergency calls, especially when they involve celebrities
  • In many states, 911 calls are public records and can be listened to or reproduced by anyone
  • Some states, however, don't make the audio part of the calls public records, and other states arefollowing their leads
  • Public access to 911 recordings can be helpful at times
  • If you have an opinion about public access to 911 recordings, let your lawmakers know it

In most states, anyone can get a recording or written transcript of an emergency 911 call. News media of all sorts do it all the time. Some states are questioning this practice. What do you think?

On the Air

If you regularly watch the news on your TV or computer, you've probably heard a recording of a 911 emergency call. In 2009 and 2010, there were several 911 calls splashed all over local and national news broadcasts, such as:

  • The call to paramedics when Michael Jackson was found unconscious and unresponsive to emergency aid delivered by his personal doctor
  • Calls made by family members and neighbors after Tiger Woods wrecked his car just outside his home
  • Brooke Mueller's call to police during and after a domestic altercation with her husband-actor, Charlie Sheen

Of course, you don't have to be a celebrity to have your 911 call made part of the evening news. You've no doubt heard calls made by toddlers and young children trying to get help for an injured parent. You may also have heard 911 calls for help by persons who've witnessed or discovered brutal or violent crimes.

The point is the call wouldn't be on the news or all over the web if, in fact, it wasn't news. Juicy gossip, tidbits, and, yes, the misfortunes of the rich and famous are news items a lot of people want to hear and know about. TV ratings, hits on websites, and newspaper sales go up. The same is true for calls by ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances. The real life drama of a 911 call can make the best reality TV.

In many states, 911 recordings are public records. They're calls made to taxpayer-paid government employees using equipment paid for by taxpayers concerning events or circumstances that are of public concern and interest, primarily public safety. To get access to a 911 recordingor written transcript, usually all you have to do is file a written request (usually a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request) with local authorities.

In some states, however, certain information may be removed from the recording before it's released. This includes the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the person who made the call, as well as such information about witnesses or victims. In some states there's no requirement to remove this information.

Once you have the recording, you're free to post it on the internet or play it on the nightly news.

Off the Air

A few states put limits on the use of 911 recordings. In April 2010, Alabama passed a law barring the release of the audio recording of a 911 call unless there's a court order for the audio. You can get a written transcript of the call by payinga fee, though.

Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Wyoming have similar laws limiting the use of 911 audio recordings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Other states are following their lead. For example, Ohio is working a new law to bar the use of the audio recording of a 911 call on television or the internet. Violators would be fined $10,000. Records of 911 calls would still be open to the public - transcripts would be available for use in newspapers and websites, for instance.

The Debate

The laws on the use 911 calls in the media show the two sides of the debate. On one side - the side most states are on - there's the need to inform people about newsworthy items. Making 911 call records open to the public, especially the audio portions, also helps to make sure 911 operators and emergency personnel are doing what they're supposed to do.

On the other hand, there's a need to protect the caller. First, there are fears a caller's name,address, and phone number may be revealed. This information is collected automatically when a 911 call is made. Also, it's possible a caller's voice may make him recognizable. In both situations, the caller is in danger of retaliation by the person he made the call about, or even unwanted attention by media.

There's also an investigatory factor. Sometimes police can't identify or locate a 911 caller, and so they air the 911 recording in the hopes someone will recognize the voice and help the police find the caller.

On the other hand, laws limiting the access to or use of 911 audio also are aimed at protecting the privacy of the callers and victims. For example, Linda Casey made a frantic 911 call when she discovered her daughter dead in the driveway of the family home. Her reaction to her daughter's death, as captured in the 911 call, was an extremely personal matter to her. That same day, the 911 recording was played on the local news. Casey vomited when she heard it.

Laws limiting the use of 911 recordings clearly are designed, in part at least, to protect victims and their families from hearing over and over again the often horrifying details of a crime.

Which side are you on? If you have an opinion one way the other, you should contact your state lawmakers and tell them what you think.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Isn't there some sort of law making it illegal for someone else, like a television station, to use my voice from a 911 call without my permission?
  • I know 911 audio recordings are open to the public in our state, but what can I do if the police won't give me a recording?
  • If using 911 audio in our state is illegal, does that mean I can't use 911 audio tapes from calls in other states on my website?
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