The bill also requires that individuals who request a transcript to pay a fee.
House Bill 159 says a court would have to determine whether the public’s need to get a copy of the recording outweighs the importance of preserving the privacy of the individuals involved in the call.
However, the bill does not apply to law enforcement officials conducting an investigation, as long as the transcript of the call may be relevant to the investigation.
“The biggest reason for the bill was because several people had mentioned that their 911 call-ins had been used by criminals, who were involved in a crime that was being reported, to harass the person who made the 911 calls,” said Rep. Cam Ward. “Many people testified that they no longer felt safe ever reporting anything on 911 again because of the harassment they had gone through as a result of their reporting something they saw.” The bill will help ensure the privacy of individuals who make 911 calls, as well as defending the media’s access to 911 calls, said Alabama Speaker of the House Seth Hammett.
The bill says recordings can be released to a person involved in the recording, or to his or her legal representative without a court order for investigation or to be used as evidence.
“There are provisions in the law that allow for defendants on trial to access all records involved in a 911 call, so it both protects privacy and also ensures fair trials for those who have been arrested,” Ward said.
Under current state law, anyone who wants a public record has to pay for it, Ward said.
However, this fee depends on the governmental body. Hammett said he expected the cost of transcription to differ based on its length.
“I support the premise behind the bill and its intent, but I voted against the bill in its current form due to concerns with the print and audio media having equal access opportunities to the 911 recordings,” said Rep. Alan Baker.
Baker said he thinks the bill is important because it calls attention to the conflict between individuals’ rights to privacy and to not be exploited, and the rights of the press to have access to public transcriptions.
“Once again, we have before the people of America, and specifically in Alabama, a battle for rights of the press versus that of the individual, both of which have significant value and merit,” Baker said. “Censorship butts heads with exploitation and a right to privacy.”
Ward said he thinks the media would be allowed to purchase the transcripts.
“According to comments made during debate on the bill, the amendment pertaining to transcripts was agreed upon by the Alabama Broadcasters Association and the Alabama Press Association,” Hammett said.
After being passed by the House, the bill will go to the Senate.
“The bill will more than likely be amended in the Senate,” Baker said. “If approved, the House will see a revised version of the bill.”