Transcripts of 911 calls must be made public
HAWAII–Transcripts of calls to 911 are public records and must be made available for public review, a trial court in Hilo ruled in early September.
Although individuals who call 911 may prefer anonymity, the court ruled that “in this world of media publicity and litigation there is no realistic expectation of anonymity and, therefore privacy, when a person contacts the police with information.” The court also affirmed that the only exception to this arises “if the information is given under some structured condition of anonymity.”
The courts decision came in a case brought by The Hawaii Herald- Tribune, who sued the Hawaii County Police Department, and Chief of Police Wayne Carvalho, after they refused to provide the Tribune certain 911 recordings and dispatch logs relating to a fatal shooting by police that occurred in June 1998.
The department denied the Tribune access to the 911 recordings, instead giving them written transcripts of the recording with all references to individuals redacted. The department argued that the disclosure of such information was an invasion of privacy.
Under the Hawaii Uniform Information Practice Act, disclosure of a governmental record is required unless release “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy,” or if the privacy interest of the individual outweighs the public interest in disclosure.
The court held that in this case the public interest in disclosure outweighed privacy interests of the individual because the media had already publicized the death of John Pavao, who was fatally shot by an officer, and the names of the other witnesses involved.
The court found that because Pavao was the subject of a “media statement” issued by the police and was identified in an earlier article published by the Tribune, and because the officer “was on active duty and acting within the scope of his employment at the time of the incident,” the information is of public interest and does not constitute private facts.
The court also stated that a civil lawsuit by the victim’s family against the police department is “practically certain,” and in that case “the names and addresses of potential witnesses must be disclosed by the county.” The witnesses would also be identified in a public trial. (DR Partners v. County of Hawaii; Media Counsel: Jeffrey Portnoy, Honolulu)