Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hernando Today

By TONY HOLT | Hernando Today

Published: March 11, 2010

TALLAHASSEE - Proponents of a House bill think it provides long-overdue protection to the privacy of crime victims.

First Amendment advocates think it goes too far and would remove accountability for 911 operators and rescue responders.

Crime victims themselves seem split on the issue.

On Wednesday, a House panel approved Florida Bill PCB GAP 10-03, which would bar the public from hearing audio recordings of 911 calls. Only a judge could grant an exception.

Furthermore, it would delay public access to the written transcripts of a 911 call for 60 days.

"I think this balances privacy with accountability," said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Brooksville, who wrote the bill.

"In speaking with many people who have made 911 calls, it's usually a very tragic incident and they don't want to have to hear it on the news," he continued. "This is meant to protect their privacy."

Schenck wouldn't discuss his own experiences with emergency calls, but said he has had several conversations with people who have called 911 and who support the bill.

"The media hasn't been very happy with it for obvious reasons," Schenck said.

John Hoblick, president of the Florida Farm Bureau, pushed for such a ban after television stations played a recording of a 911 call about his son's drug overdose.

Schenck said he has had no conversations with Hoblick.

"We don't like it. It's bad public policy," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. "I understand the motivation … but we have to be equally sympathetic of those who have suffered because of the mistakes of 911 operators."

Petersen also complained of the "strong-fisted" tactics used to ram the bill through the committee Wednesday.

"If this passes, it's an exception to the Constitution," she said.

Brooksville Police Chief George Turner said he had "mixed emotions" about the bill.

Hernando County Sheriff Nugent said while the bill doesn't seem perfect, he supports the spirit behind it.

"I think there is a lot of merit in it," Nugent said. "You really need to take victims into account."

Both Nugent and Schenck think releasing the transcripts of 911 emergency calls in 60 days is sufficient.

Schenck argued accountability is not taken away because anyone can petition the court for an audio recording. Secondly, if someone suspects there was wrongdoing or negligence on the part of a 911 operator, the bill still allows for victims to file claims or report their suspicions to the authorities.

Courtenay Strickland, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the existing law pertaining to 911 calls already has privacy protections in place.

Florida statute 365.171 Chapter 12 states the name, addresses, telephone number or personal information about or information which may identify any person requesting emergency service or reporting an emergency is confidential.

Strickland thinks that is sufficient.

She also thinks waiting 60 days is too long.

"We respect the intent of the bill, but as we've seen in other news reports, there are some victims out there who don't want the kinds of protections outlined in this bill," Strickland said.

One of those victims is Nate Lee, the husband of Denise Amber Lee.

Lee's wife was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2008. He recalled the torment he and his family went through when his wife's 911 call on her killer's cell phone was played on the evening news.

Lee recently told a reporter he thought public access to the 911 audio exposed the mistakes made by the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office when it took the call.

"If there's something wrong and a 911 center botches the call or something happens, I want to know what's going on," Lee said.

Nugent said he is encouraged to see the Legislature address privacy rights. He doesn't think Florida law protects crime victims enough.

"Is it a perfect bill? I don't know about that," he said. "But it does bring the issue to light. It's important to have a debate about that."

WFLA reporter Jackie Barron contributed to this story.

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or