A&A: How Do I Access Decades-Old 911 Audios?

Q: How can I obtain 911 audios/reports from 1993 and 2006?

A: The California Public Records Act (CPRA) requires public agencies to disclose public records unless some exemption applies.  Public records include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency.” Gov’t Code § 6252(e).  Note that the word “writing” as used in the CPRA does not only mean words on a page, but includes “every other means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combinations thereof, and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.” Gov’t Code § 6252(g).  As such, you may request virtually any form of media in the possession of a government agency, including audio recordings.

A good first step to obtaining the 911 records you seek is to make a written request.  You can find a sample request letter on the FAC website to help get you started.  Once you make 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. 

If nothing else, the police are required to release a limited amount of information related to arrests and requests for assistance, unless the disclosure of such information “would endanger the safety of a person involved in an investigation or would endanger the successful completion of the investigation or a related investigation.” Cal. Gov. Code § 6254(f). Information that should be released includes “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, including, to the extent the information regarding crimes alleged or committed or any other incident investigated is recorded, the time, date, and location of occurrence, the time and date of the report, the name and age of the victim, the factual circumstances surrounding the crime or incident, and a general description of any injuries, property, or weapons involved.” Cal. Gov. Code § 6254(f)(2). Thus, you should be able to obtain the basic facts surrounding the 911 call, including the date, location, and substance of the call, if not the actual transcript of what was said.

More information about submitting a CPRA request, including an overview of the law and sample text for writing your request, can be found on the First Amendment Coalition’s website here.

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.