Tapes of 911 calls not public records
PENNSYLVANIA–Audio tapes of a call made to a police emergency response center are not available under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, the state Supreme Court in Harrisburg unanimously held in late January.
In holding that the tapes did not fall under the definition of public records under state open records law, the high court reversed a trial court decision and narrowed the sweep of a line of appellate court decisions interpreting the term.
Earlier courts’ readings of the definition of public records were overbroad, improperly concluding that a “record” need only reflect some action by an agency that has an effect on someone, the high court wrote. Instead, it held, a citizen must demonstrate a close relationship between requested material and an actual agency “minute, order or decision” fixing some right or duty.
Tapes of emergency calls do not meet this definition because the relationship between the call and subsequent agency decisionmaking is speculative and attenuated, the high court held. The tapes also are not closely related to the “fixing of some personal or property right” and therefore do not meet the statutory requirements.
Writing for the court, Justice Thomas Saylor noted that the tapes were not necessary “to a complete understanding” of the government’s decision to dispatch ambulance crews.
The North Hills News Record unsuccessfully sought copies of a call reporting a double murder on New Year’s Day 1998 in suburban Pittsburgh. The town of McCandless, which operated the call center, dispatched police and emergency personnel to the scene and the estranged husband of one of the victims was later arrested in connection with the killings.
Two categories of public records exist under Pennsylvania law, the court wrote. One deals with accounts, vouchers and contracts. The other concerns minutes, orders and decisions.
The high court noted that the second category “touches on the decisional aspects of agency action.” It was the lower court’s inclusion of the tapes in the latter category that was the subject of the appeal.
The newspaper failed to establish that the decision to investigate, arrest or prosecute the alleged killer was contingent on information contained in the tapes, the court held. (North Hills News Record v. Town of McCandless)