Recently, the Portland Press Herald sued to obtain copies of certain 911 transcripts. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the newspaper. You may ask yourself, why do I care? One of the guiding principles of good government is the transparency in it actions. We should care when our government starts to hide behind the sheet of its own red tape. This story supports assuring our government maintains its transparency.
Let’s take a moment to set the background. We will:
- Review the facts of the underlying case
- Share why this is a victory for the freedom of the press.
- Establish how this precedent helps the right of the people to be informed.
About the Court Case
The facts of the underlying case are pretty grim. Several calls were made to 911. The first 911 call was made by one of the murder victims, Derrick Thompson. He informed 911 operators. The defendant, James Pak, was threatening him and banging upon Derrick’s door. When the police responded to the argument, they decided the conflict was a “civil issue.” The police did not give further explanation. Unfortunately, three minutes after the police left the scene, another call came into 911. In this call, the murder victims’ mother reached out for help. She relayed that the defendant had shot her twice, killed her son and murdered his girlfriend.
From a legal perspective, this situation sounds a lot like “Criminal Threatening”. In Maine, “Criminal Threatening or Terrorizing” means someone knowingly places another person in fear of imminent bodily injury. Criminal Threatening is a class D misdemeanor punishable by up to one year incarceration.
These events cast a dark murky cloud over the law enforcement agencies involved. The question arises why did the police not see this as a potential criminal act? In reviewing the facts, there was an attempted forced entry into the department. Verbal threats were made. It appears as though the police had not fulfilled their obligation to “serve and protect” the public. The outcome was people died as a result of the police’s failure to prevent further escalation of the argument.
The Portland Press Herald newspaper attempted to obtain copies of the 911 recordings. The newspaper wanted to see what had happened. In response, the State agencies refused to provide this information. The State argued that disclosing the 911 recordings could interfere with the pending court case and potential witnesses. The York County Superior Court Justice agreed.
Argument in Favor of Releasing the Documents
One of the wonderful things about our court system, is you can almost always ask a higher court to review a lower court’s ruling. This process is called appealing. The newspaper appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court, also known as the Law Court, decided unanimously to overturn the lower court’s ruling. The Law Court ruled in favor of the newspaper and instructed the lower court to order the authorities to release the 911 transcripts. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling which included the argument why it decided in favor of producing the 911 transcripts to the newspaper. The reasons provided included:
- 1st Amendment Grounds– The 1st Amendment of the United States of America guarantees the right to the freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is a foundational building block to keeping the people informed.
- Transparency Supports Government Accountability– Releasing the 911 transcripts will support the transparency of government functions. In turn, transparency opens up the government to public scrutiny and accountability. Another way of putting it is that “sunshine is a great disinfectant” against corruption.
- 911 Transcripts are “Public Records”- According to the Freedom of Access Act, public records need to be available openly to the public. Here, the Law Court determined 911 Transcripts are in fact public records.
Setting a Precedent for Future Cases
This decision could set a precedent for other types of emergency records to be opened up to the public. In my perspective, this is a good thing. The press can obtain transparent public records. Using these public records, the press writes articles on how our government is working. The public reads these articles or sees the news. The press keeps the public informed with factual information. An informed public is a critical puzzle piece to hold our government accountable. At the end of the day, just because documents or recordings are in the possession of the State, it is not a good enough reason to not share the information with the public.