May 14, 2013

Maine panel: 911 confidentiality bill shouldn't pass

Maine is already one of five states that places restrictions on 911 recordings, and this would make those restrictions even stricter.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee voted Monday 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 Judiciary Committee voted 8-3 to reject the bill, which would make confidential any "information or records that relate to a pending law enforcement investigation or a pending criminal prosecution" coming from 911 calls.

It would make illegal disclosure a Class E misdemeanor.

Maine is one of five states that put certain restrictions on the release of 911 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 over Maine's confidentiality law coincides with a legal dispute over the Portland Press Herald's request for 911 transcripts relating to a fatal shooting in Biddeford in December.

The Press Herald has appealed a judge's decision in March to withhold transcripts of the emergency calls.

The Attorney General's Office and state police had rejected the newspaper's 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 at Pak's home, where Thompson was a tenant, and were there shortly before the fatal shooting.

Pak also is charged with shooting Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson, 44, who survived.

Johnson and her son rented an apartment connected to Pak's home, and Welch often stayed there.

The Press Herald filed a Freedom of Access Act request in early January for a transcript of the 911 call that Thompson made at 6:07 p.m. on Dec. 29.

Police responded to the call and determined that the dispute was a civil matter after talking with Johnson and Thompson, and then with Pak.

In an affidavit, police indicated that Thompson claimed Pak said he would shoot them and made a hand motion.

Thompson, however, told police that he didn't think Pak would hurt them.

The officers left the home about 6:51 p.m. Within three minutes, Johnson called 911, saying she had been shot twice.

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

"Law enforcement should not be judge and jury on the public's right to know," Cliff Schechtman, the Press Herald's executive editor, said in January.

"It's easy to cite 'investigative information' as a blanket cover to keep everything secret. But then how can the public know that first responders are doing their job well?"

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 Press Herald appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court shortly after that ruling.

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

The bill to expand confidentiality has been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and Sigmund Schutz, the Press Herald's 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 Judiciary Committee, said he supported making sensitive information in 911 records confidential, but wanted to wait until the Press Herald's case against the state is 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 can be reached at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


Correction: This story was updated at 10:45 a.m., May 14, 2013, to remove a reference to the Attorney General's Office's position on the 911 confidentiality bill. Their position is neutral.

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