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N.H. Justices affirm that 911 calls not subject to Right to Know release

photo of police car with 911 sticker
Dan Tuohy

Audio recordings of 911 emergency calls will remain exempted from the state’s Right to Know law following a 4-1 ruling by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

In the case before the state’s highest court, a hotel in Nashua sought the recording of a 911 call made in June 2019 following a slip and fall incident in its facility. Lawyers for the hotel, which was known as the Fireside Inn when the call took place, argued New Hampshire's blanket prohibition against releasing 911 calls to the public ran afoul of the state’s transparency law, and calls should be considered for release on a case by case basis. A lower court judge denied the request, prompting an appeal.

Under current state regulations, the Department of Safety only releases the audio of 911 calls to law enforcement entities as part of ongoing investigations. The department is also able to share geographic information about incoming 911 calls with the Department of Environmental Services when the incident involves hazardous waste spills near drinking water wells.

Attorneys for the hotel argued that there is a compelling public interest in releasing some 911 calls, in part to ensure that the state’s emergency response personnel are performing their duties. They argued that the courts should make decisions on a case by case basis by performing a ‘balancing test’ to determine if a specific call’s release is in the public’s interest, or if it would be too great an intrusion into the privacy rights of those involved.

But the justices rejected those arguments and sided with the government, writing that lawmakers made it clear in the statute that the recordings and call logs for 911 calls are to be categorically exempted from the right to know statute.

“Of course, if the legislature disagrees with our interpretation, it is free to amend the statutory scheme,” the majority of justices wrote.

Justice Anna Barbara Hantz Marconi issued a brief dissent, noting that automatically shielding these public records is “akin to defining a highway bridge to include the vehicles that travel over it.”

In New Hampshire, the audio of 911 calls, which are stored by the Department of Safety, is deleted after six months, unless authorities request an extension. No transcript of the calls are made by the department.

Mark Doyle, the state’s director of the division of emergency services, said emergency calls often include sensitive medical information or could include identifying information about minors. If bystanders know their calls may be publicly released, they may rethink their involvement in a potential emergency, Doyle suggested.

“If folks have any compunction against calling 911 because they feel like that information is going to then be pushed out into the media, or that folks in and around their communities such as neighbors may get a hold of that, they may be less apt to call because they don't want to get involved,” he said.

Transparency advocates in New England, however, have pushed for greater access to 911 calls as a way to learn more about emergency response services. In 2014, the Portland Press Herald successfully argued before the Maine Supreme Court for the release of the transcript of a call following a shooting in Biddeford that left two teenagers dead. Maine now releases transcripts of 911 calls, though certain identifying information may be redacted.

In a series of articles in 2019, The Public’s Radio reported on shortcomings in the training of 911 operators in Rhode Island. In that state, the audio of calls is only released when the person who makes the call grants permission.

In New Hampshire, the person who placed the 911 call previously was allowed to obtain a copy of the recording, but in 2018 a superior court judge ruled that that practice appeared to violate the statute. In 2020, the state approved a rule change prohibiting the release of audio.

In Massachusetts, anyone can request 911 audio or transcripts through a public-facing website, though there are certain exemptions to what information is released.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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