911 Calls and Protecting the Natural Voice – Mandatory or Optional?

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Frayda Bluestein

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Under Section G.S. 132-1.4(c) of the North Carolina Public Records law, the contents of 911 calls are public information, except for certain information specified in the statute. This provision was modified in An Act To Provide That a Transcript or Altered Voice Reproduction May Be Made Available for A 911 Call So As Not To identify the Caller by the Natural Voice. (S.L. 2011-321). The motivation for the change was apparently to encourage witnesses to report crimes without fear of retribution. The wording of the new provision has raised a question about whether law enforcement agencies are now prohibited from releasing natural voice recordings, or whether the altered voice/transcript is optional. I think that it’s optional. Here’s why. 

The new provision is an exception to an exception to an exception to the public records law. Let’s walk through the various provisions and all those exceptions, starting with the basic requirement under the public records law.

All records of public agencies that involve the transaction of public business are subject to public access. Then we have an exception: Under G.S. 132-1.4, criminal investigation and intelligence records of law enforcement agencies are not public records. This exception does not prohibit the release of law enforcement records. It simply eliminates the public’s right of access. Law enforcement agencies may release criminal investigation or intelligence records, but are not required to do so.

Next we have an exception to the exception: G.S. 132-1.4(c) lists specific information that is public, even if it is contained in a criminal investigation or intelligence record. The public does have a right of access to this information and it must be released if requested. Included in this list is G.S. 132-1.4(c)(4), which makes public the contents of 911 and other emergency telephone calls.

Finally we come to the exception to the exception to the exception, and it is this language that was amended. The provision as amended (as shown in underlined text) now says that the contents of 911 and other emergency telephone calls are public information,

“except for such contents that reveal the natural voice, name, address, telephone number, or other information that may identify the caller, victim, or witness. In order to protect the identity of the complaining witness, the contents of “911” and other emergency telephone calls may be released pursuant to this section in the form of a written transcript or altered voice reproduction; provided that the original shall be provided under process to be used as evidence in any relevant civil or criminal proceeding.

I read this last exception to mean that the natural voice content, along with the name, address, telephone number, and other identifying information, are not public records.

Here’s how I would map it out:

Rule: Records of public agencies are public (must be released)

Exception: Criminal investigation and intelligence records are not public  (may be released)

Exception: 911 contents are public (must be released)

Exception: Natural voice of caller is not public (may be released)

In effect, the last exception restores the status of this information to the first exception, that is, to the status of information to which the public does not have a right of access. I don’t see anything in the provision that would prohibit the release of this information. Indeed, a separate provision in the statute (G.S. 132-1.4(d)) specifically prohibits (temporarily) the release of information about a complaining witness if necessary to protect the person or to prevent a compromise to the pending investigation. Without similar language in subsection (c)(4), it would appear that the information may be released in the discretion of the law enforcement agency.

A public agency may choose to adopt a policy that all 911 recordings will be voice altered or provided as written transcripts (although note that the original must be preserved for evidence). But I see nothing in the law that requires such a policy.

 

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