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Court denies TV station access to 911 tape

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         ARIZONA         Freedom of Information         Apr 2, 2002    

Court denies TV station access to 911 tape

  • A state court of appeals prohibited an Arizona television station from obtaining a copy of a 911 audiotape because of privacy interests, saying disclosure of a transcript of the call would suffice.

An Arizona appellate court on March 26 denied a Phoenix television station’s request for the tape of a frantic 911 call made after a 16-month-old child fell from his crib.

The Arizona Court of Appeals in Phoenix reversed a decision by the Superior Court in Maricopa County that the Mesa Police Department must provide a copy of the 911 tape to KTVK-TV. The station sought both a copy of the tape and the transcript from the department but only received the transcript.

Applying an “alternative means” test established by the Arizona Supreme Court, the appellate court found that the Mesa Police Department’s release of a transcript satisfied KTVK-TV’s request under the Public Records Act.

“KTVK-TV does not claim, nor do we find, that the tape advances the purpose of the Public Records Act in any way that the transcript does not satisfy,” wrote the court in its decision.

The “alternative means” test stipulates that the public interest in disclosure be balanced with concerns such as privacy.

“We cannot imagine a more fundamental concern or one more directly associated with ‘the intimate aspects of identity’ and family autonomy than the desire to withhold from public display the recorded suffering of one’s child,” the court said.

However, in a dissenting opinion, Judge Ann A. Scott Timmer noted that “in light of the emergency nature of 911 calls . . . it is difficult to imagine a call that would not stand as a ‘painful reminder’ to any listener who was the subject of a request for assistance or related to such a person.” Timmer added that “911 tapes are public records, which must be presumptively produced under the Public Records Act unless and until the legislature exempts them from disclosure.”

Nancy Walsh called 911 on Feb. 29, 2000, after Dominic D. — the child she was babysitting — fell from his crib. The tape features Dominic’s pained whimpers and Walsh’s emotional pleas for help.

Dennis O’Neill, KTVK-TV’s news director, said the station will probably appeal the decision.

“Why would the public ever want a less perfect record than the record made?” he asked.

(A.H. Belo Corporation vs. Mesa Police Department; Media counsel: Daniel C. Barr, Brown & Bain) KC

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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