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Should Calls to Emergency Responders Be Considered Public Records?

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Following the release of personal details related to a 911 call made from the home of actress Demi Moore, a California legislator has begun promoting a bill to improve privacy in the state. The bill carves out an exception to the state’s public records disclosure rules to prevent identifying information on emergency calls from being released to the public.

“Releasing conversations with first responders concerning the details of emergencies compromises the privacy of people when they are at their most vulnerable,” said California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis.

Such was the case recently when segments of the conversation between a 911 operator and an assistant to actress Demi Moore were made public. Details, such as the possibility that Moore had smoked a substance and was experiencing medical complications, were published in newspapers, magazines, and blogs. The release of this information prompted questions as to the extent to which calls to first responders should be made available to the public.

In California and throughout the country, laws exist to ensure transparency in the dealings of government agencies. Under the California Public Records Act, certain information must be released to the public upon request. While such disclosure is crucial to holding the government accountable for its activities, this interest must be balanced against other considerations. For instance, although public records are disclosed as a general matter, disclosure is not required when it would compromise national or state security to release information. Likewise, when the privacy rights of individual citizens are adversely impacted, these privacy rights must be weighed against the public’s right to know.

Recognizing the need for such balance, California Assemblywoman Norma Torres proposed legislation to create exemptions to the Public Records Act. AB 1275 would prohibit state and local government agencies from releasing segments of 911 calls revealing medical or personal identifying information. A decision concerning the passage of the Bill has yet to be made.

In today’s day and age with information so readily accessible and shared over the Internet, there seems to be little argument against taking necessary steps to shield this type of highly personal information from public view. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act imposes stringent safeguards to protect the privacy of patients in the medical system and to ensure that their health records remain secure and confidential.
The natural question then is why not extend protection to people before they are actually in the medical system but when they are seeking help from a 911 operator.

The need for California residents to have privacy during times of stress when calling 911 is clear. The 911 call from Moore’s home is an example of why the law needs to safeguard the privacy rights of all 911 callers to ensure that their personal information does not become public knowledge, explained injury lawyer James Ballidis.

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