No number in America suggests crisis and drama more than 911, the countrywide emergency help number. In some states, access to 911 recordings may be limited, but in others, you can obtain the calls as a matter of public record. One of the main reasons to need a 911 call recording is for its use as evidence in related court actions.
Emergency Call Recordings
Calls to 911 are typically made by eyewitnesses to a situation: someone heard the shot, saw a pedestrian hit by a bus or watched a surfer get swept out to sea. These calls are recorded and the recorded voices, full of the emotion of the moment, can serve as powerful testimony about what the caller was experiencing in that moment. However, they can also be painful reminders of sad situations for those involved. This is why the transcripts of 911 calls are generally easier to obtain than the tape itself.
Some states treat all emergency phone calls as confidential information, and prohibit the release of call recordings or transcripts without a court order. In Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming, you need to petition the court for an order that the material be released to you, including a memorandum and declarations showing your need for the material. States are generally obligated to provide the information to criminal defendants in matters related to the 911 call.
Other states limit by statute the persons who have access to 911 recordings and transcripts. Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina and South Dakota each impose limitations and specify procedures for requesting release. For example, in South Dakota, application for release of the information must be made to the law enforcement agency or court who then determines whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in nondisclosure.
Most other states allow free access to 911 transcripts, although the procedure for obtaining them varies. In California, for example, 911 recordings are considered public under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). You request access by sending a letter to the agency in charge of the documents stating that you are requesting the records under the CPRA. In Virginia, you fill out a Freedom of Information Act Request Submission Form and submit it according to the directions. In Iowa, transcripts and recordings are generally available to the public upon simple request.
- National Conference of State Legislatures: State Laws Relating to Confidentiality of 9-1-1 Call Recordings and Photographs of Emergency Scenes
- Nolo: Preservation of Evidence in Criminal Cases
- First Amendment Center: 911 Recordings and Transcripts -- State Statutes
- Fairfax County Virginia: Obtaining Copies of Fairfax County 9-1-1 Records
- Iowa Department of Justice: Can the Public Obtain Copies of "9-1-1" Audio Tapes?
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.