Q: I have requested a transcript of the call to the California Highway Patrol officer that came from the 911 service and dispatched the CHP officer to the accident location. How can I obtain this record?
A: Records of 911 calls are public records under the California Public Records Act and, therefore, must be disclosed unless a specific exemption to disclosure applies.
If you made a written request, the agency must determine whether the records are disclosable within 10 days of your request, and “promptly notify” you, in writing, if it will make the records available. If not, it must cite a particular exemption and explain to you, in writing, how the exemption applies. Gov’t Code § 6253(c).
One common exemption cited for 911 calls is known as the “investigatory exemption.” See Gov’t Code § 6254(f). When applicable, this exemption permits police and other agencies to withhold investigatory files from the public, even after the investigation is over. Rivero v. Superior Court, 54 Cal. App. 4th 1048, 1051-52 (1997). Courts have applied this exemption to records regarding a call reporting a possible crime, see, e.g., Haynie v. Superior Court, 26 Cal. 4th 1061, 1064 (2001), so depending on the circumstances of your case, the agency might be able to rely on this exemption to prevent disclosure. However, the investigatory exemption is discretionary, so even if it applies, the agency may still decide to provide you the records. Further, the law requires that certain information related to 911 calls be disclosed to the public, even if the actual transcript or tape of the call is exempt from disclosure. This information includes, among other things, “the time, substance, and location of all complaints or requests for assistance received by the agency and the time and nature of the response thereto.” Gov’t Code § 6254(f)(2).
If for some reason you did not make a written request already, I suggest you do so. You can find a sample request letter on the FAC website to help get you started: CPRA Request Letter
If you have not heard back from them, you may want to send the agency a follow-up letter reminding the Police Department of their obligation to provide you with the above-mentioned information.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.