A Pennsylvania appeals court held Wednesday that the destination addresses — or nearby cross streets — linked with 911 time response reports must be released under state public records laws. The ruling in York County v. Pennsylvania Office of Open Records overturns a lower court decision that held that the state Office of Open Records was wrong to order the addresses released.
Ted Czech, a reporter for the York Daily Record, requested the time response reports in 2009. The reports list: the time a 911 call is received; the time the dispatcher contacts the police or fire department; and the time authorities arrive. The reports also list the destination addresses for the call. The logs are intended to measure response times to 911 calls. York County denied Czech's request for the addresses in the response logs.
York County argued that the addresses were not part of the state legislature's intent when it made the time response records specifically subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law in a 2008 amendment. The county also said the amendment lacked a clear definition for "time response log."
The court examined the legislative history of the amendment and found that there was nothing to suggest that addresses were exempt, despite the lack of a definition of a "time response log" and a floor statement from a member of the legislature who expressed the desire for addresses to be exempt. The amendment that was passed did not exempt the addresses from the time response logs and "what the General Assembly did is more important than what any one member said," the court held.
The court held that the legislative intent of including the time response logs under the Right-to-Know Law was to enable the public to "evaluate the efficiency of each county's emergency response to various 911 calls." That intent would be undermined if addresses were omitted from the reports, the court found.
"Without the address or cross-street information, there would be no way of knowing exactly how far the emergency responders had to travel in response to any given call and, therefore, no way of determining whether or not those response times were deficient," the court held.
The Commonwealth Court also re-established that the burden of showing a piece of information is exempt from the Right-to-Know Law lies with the government. The trial court "erred in holding that the County did not have the burden," the court held. Because the addresses and cross streets are part of the logs, which are public records, "there is a presumption under the RTKL that a record in the possession of a local agency, such as the County, is . . . subject to disclosure unless the agency proves by a preponderance of the evidence that it is exempt."
The court held that the county did not satisfy its burden to show the records were exempt and was ordered to release the time response logs "in the same manner in which it maintains these records," which includes the addresses, though the court did allow for the substitution of cross-street addresses instead of final destinations.
Niles Benn, attorney for Czech and the York Daily Record said that the addresses are key to the time response logs. "In order to know if [emergency workers] are doing their job, you need to know where they're going," he said. The public needs to have a way to ensure the system is working properly and withholding the addresses or cross-streets from these reports removes that ability, he added.
Because of concerns from victim's rights groups about releasing exact addresses, Benn's clients conceded that exact addresses weren't necessary, as long as cross-street information was included, he said.
Melissa Bevan Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, also stressed the need for the address or cross-street information.
"This information is so vital to the effectiveness of a public record. Without it, the records are rendered meaningless," she said. The response logs are the public's only way to keep the 911 response system accountable, Melewsky added. "We can't get the recordings or transcripts of recordings."
Because the logs are the only way for the government to keep check on the emergency response system, the addresses are even more important, Melewsky said. "Without some geographic information, the logs don't mean anything," and meaningless records mean there is no check at all.
Benn said he is "very proud of the decision" and the court's ability to look beyond the potential controversy it may cause with victim's rights groups. Having the addresses is the only way to understand the reports, he insisted.
York County has 30 days to file an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which would then decide whether to hear the case. If the court declines to take the case, or if York County does not appeal, the decision becomes binding in every county, meaning no county in Pennsylvania can remove the addresses from their 911 time response logs.