May 14, 2013

Committee votes against making 911 call transcripts confidential

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee on Monday recommended against passage of a bill that would expand the confidentiality of information in 911 emergency-call transcripts.

L.D. 495 is sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, a retired state trooper, and supported by the Maine State Police.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee voted 8–3 to reject the bill, which would alter Maine law to say "information or records that relate to a pending law enforcement investigation or a pending criminal prosecution" coming from 911 calls are confidential. It also would make illegal disclosure a class E misdemeanor under state law.

Already, Maine is one of five states that place certain restrictions on the release of recordings or information contained in the recordings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Recordings, for example, are confidential, but transcripts are public. Another six states keep 911 recordings fully confidential.

The legislative debate about expanding Maine's confidentiality law coincides with a legal dispute about a MaineToday Media public-access request for 911 transcripts relating to a December 2012 fatal shooting in Biddeford.

The newspaper company has appealed a judge's March ruling to withhold transcripts of the emergency calls after the Maine Office of the Attorney General and the Maine State Police rejected the newspapers' initial request.

Superior Court Justice Roland Cole denied the release of transcripts in the case against James Pak, 75, who is accused of killing Derrick Thompson, 19, and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, on Dec. 29. Police received multiple calls about a confrontation and were at Pak's home shortly before the fatal shooting.

The attorney general's office has jurisdiction over homicide prosecutions, so it can control the release of what it deems to be investigative material.

In a response to the newspapers' request, Deputy Attorney General William Stokes wrote that the "requested material constitutes intelligence and investigative information," so it shouldn't be released.

Cole ruled that there is a "reasonable possibility" that public disclosure of those calls would interfere with Pak's case and could "hypothetically influence the input of potential witnesses." The newspapers appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court shortly after that ruling.

The appeal challenges the judge on two points: whether 911 call transcripts, which are public records in Maine, can be made confidential if placed in a law enforcement file; and whether Cole had enough evidence to say releasing transcripts could interfere with the Pak case.

The legislation to expand cionfidentiality has been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Sigmund Schutz, the newspapers' attorney in the Biddeford-related case. It is supported by Christopher Parr, a state police attorney, and Elizabeth Ward Saxl, director of the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

On Monday, Rep. Jarrod Crockett of Bethel, the top Republican on the committee, said although he supported making sensitive information in 911 records confidential, he wanted to wait until the newspapers' case against the state is finally decided.

"We could pass a law that could be struck down," Crockett said. "Until we know what they're doing, I just don't want to make a wrong move."

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
mshepherd@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

 

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