AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s Department of Public Safety is hoping lawmakers will make changes to Maine’s public information law that would allow them to shield 911 call information about victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
A bill being proposed by the department — which has not been released in draft form yet — also would strengthen provisions in state law that prohibit the release of personal medical information, department spokesman Stephen McCausland said Wednesday.
“We are proposing that certain personal information, usually given to us at very traumatic times, can be confidential,” McCausland said.
State law allows for the release of transcripts of 911 calls but prohibits the release of any audio recordings of calls, although the digital recordings of the calls are commonly used by state prosecutors as evidence during public trials of suspected criminals.
Maine law also allows for the shielding of personally identifying information, including an emergency caller’s name and address, from being released to the public.
The issue of what data should and should not be released has been the subject of at least two court cases in the last year. A recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruling affirmed that the transcripts of 911 calls were largely public documents under state law and could not be exempted from release by police, even when police are using the transcripts as part of an ongoing investigation.
Advocates for the public’s right to know and for transparency in police actions and activities said there are good reasons Maine law makes transcripts of 911 calls public records.
Sigmund Schutz, a Maine lawyer who handles right-to-know cases for the media, secured the recent state supreme court ruling for the Portland Press Herald in a case involving 911 transcripts from a call related to a double homicide in Biddeford.
The Portland newspaper, part of a group of plaintiffs, also prevailed in a request to get a copy of transcripts in a 911 call in Windham that ended with police shooting to death a man who was brandishing a firearm in his own driveway and threatening suicide.
Schutz said police already have fairly broad discretion in shielding data in 911 transcripts from release and that he would worry about how far they want to go in keeping secret details from 911 calls.
“If a citizen calls 911, that citizen is calling a recorded government phone number asking for government, taxpayer-funded assistance, and by law those phone calls are all recorded,” Schutz said. “I think there’s a real question as to what type of privacy interests realistically there is or should be.”
Law enforcement can already keep from the public’s view any data that could compromise an ongoing police investigation, Schutz said.
He said transparency in how public service agencies including police, fire and ambulance crews respond and how well communications systems work or not is important for ensuring improvement and trust in the systems.
“There’s been a lot of investigative reporting that’s been made possible because of access to 911 information and that reporting has exposed in various cases serious problems with how these emergency response systems operate, whether they operate correctly, whether there are mistakes, whether there are ways of correcting the system, and all that would be silenced if you eliminated access to 911 calls,” Schutz said.
Most other U.S. states have greater public access to 911 information than Maine allows, including allowing for the release of the actual call recordings. Only seven states shield more data in 911 calls than Maine does.
The bill, once it is in draft form, would be subject to a series of public hearings and other actions in the Legislature starting some time in January. It’s first likely stop in the process would be the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the state’s public information laws.