Lawmaker seeks restrictions on releasing 911 recordings

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An emergency services manager and some state lawmakers appealed Thursday for restrictions on the public release of 911 recordings, arguing that they can result in a person's frantic moments being replayed endlessly on the Internet.

"We aren't allowed to grab people's medical records, but yet we can grab their entire life in a brief moment of time and make them listen to it over and over and over again," said Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, who is part owner of Metro-Area Ambulance Inc. The company provides ambulance service to Bismarck, Mandan and the surrounding region.

Porter played audio of 911 calls taken from searches on the YouTube at a hearing of the North Dakota House's Political Subdivisions Committee. One call was a recording of a woman who said she had killed her children. None of the 911 recordings Porter played were of North Dakota calls.

North Dakota law considers 911 recordings to be public records, although authorities are allowed to edit out any information the law already shields. Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, has sponsored legislation that would bar public disclosure of a 911 recording or transcript unless the person who made the call agreed to its release.

North Dakota newspapers and broadcasters oppose the legislation. Jack McDonald, a Bismarck attorney and media lobbyist, said 911 recordings provide important information about public events.

Recordings released earlier this month after the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., outside a Tucson supermarket helped the public learn about the sequence of events and what witnesses saw, McDonald said.

He also said news outlets in North Dakota are not known for sensationalizing 911 recordings.

Mike Dannenfelzer, manager of an emergency communications center that serves Bismarck and Burleigh County, said the legislation was not aimed at the media.

"We've always, I think, had a very good relationship with the media. They are not the target of this bill," Dannenfelzer said. "It is simply the access that anyone has to this record."

Dannenfelzer said some requests he has fielded are from people trying to find out information about former spouses or trying to discover who reported a loud party or a possible drunken-driving violation.

The committee took no action on the legislation. McDonald said the bill should be defeated but that a possible compromise would allow public disclosure of transcripts of 911 calls, instead of the recordings themselves.

"If the fear is the things that were described here about the audio recording being on the Internet, being played over and over again, then maybe there is not a reason to say the written transcript could not be released," McDonald said.

Six states, including Wyoming, prohibit the release of 911 recordings, and four others, including South Dakota and Minnesota, restrict their release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Trey Forgety, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association in Arlington, Va., said there were "legitimate privacy reasons" for restricting distribution of 911 recordings, but he said the issue was not a top priority for the association.

"You should be able to protect the privacy of the call-taker and the person calling 911," Forgety said. "One of the things we absolutely don't want is someone to think twice about calling because they're thinking, 'Am I going to end up on 'Crazy 911 Calls' or something like that?'"

Lindsey Coburn, a spokeswoman for APCO International Inc., of Daytona Beach, Fla., which represents public safety and emergency communications directors, said the organization does not get involved in state legislative matters.

Chad Nodland, a Bismarck attorney who operates the blog, said it would be difficult in many cases for someone who wanted a 911 recording to discover who had made the call. He also said he wondered whether the legislation was motivated by recent domestic assault charges against Rep. Dave Weiler, R-Bismarck. Klemin has denied any link.

Weiler has been arrested twice since March 2009 on charges he assaulted his wife. He pleaded guilty to the first charge and vehemently denied the second, which was dropped in July after a prosecutor said his estranged wife, Nicole, had recanted. The Weilers are divorcing.

Nodland said he obtained a recording of a 911 call made by Nicole Weiler and wrote about it on his blog, although he said he did not post it for listening. Shortly after Klemin's legislation was introduced Jan. 6, Nodland posted an item dubbing it the "Dave Weiler Protection Act of 2011."

Klemin has said his bill would not have given the legislator any say over whether authorities could release the recording of a 911 call made by his wife. At Thursday's hearing, Dannenfelzer said he has been concerned about the issue for years and considered asking that a similar bill be introduced two years ago.

The bill is HB1156.