The parent company of The Decatur Daily has sued the Morgan County Emergency Management Communication District, asking that it be required to comply with state law dealing with public records and provide 911 transcripts on a liquor store incident and a triple homicide.
The complaint was filed this week in Morgan County Circuit Court by Tennessee Valley Media.
The requested transcripts are “public records subject to public inspection,” the lawsuit claims.
“Every citizen in Alabama has the right to documents defined as public records,” said Scott Brown, director of operations for Tennessee Valley Media. “Transparency promotes accountability.”
Brown said that “the Legislature by statute says these transcripts are public documents."
“How can you now say you don’t have to disclose them?” he said. “And now they’re going to use the public’s money through litigation to further keep the documents from the public.”
The lawsuit notes that the state’s emergency management districts operate 911 emergency call networks, using public funds from monthly charges on residents’ phone bills.
The newspaper is seeking access specifically to 911 transcripts for a March 15 incident in which a caller reported that someone had tried to steal from a Decatur liquor store, with the responding police officer and store owner becoming involved in a physical altercation; and a May 24 triple homicide in the Danville area of Morgan County, in which the alleged suspect turned himself in to authorities on May 26. “Upon information and belief, there were one or more 911 calls made to the district” related to both of the incidents, the suit claims.
The triple homicide was in the Decatur police jurisdiction.
The lawsuit charges that the district’s denial of access to the requested documents is in violation of an Alabama code providing that “any written or electronic record detailing the circumstances, response, or other events related to a 911 call which is kept by the emergency communications district in its regular course of business shall be deemed a public writing” under the state’s open records law “and subject to public inspection unless otherwise provided by law.”
The complaint claims the district’s actions to avoid disclosure of the transcripts "were intended to cause inordinate expense in order to discourage citizens of Alabama from challenging a decision to withhold public records in the future."
“The district’s actions indicate it will continue to unilaterally decide when and if 911 transcripts will be disclosed to Alabama citizens in the future based on the objections of the City of Decatur or its law enforcement officers,” the lawsuit alleges.
Shortly after the liquor store incident and triple homicide, Daily reporters requested written or electronic records, specifically call transcripts, on these incidents from the district, and the district didn’t deny the transcripts existed but refused to produce them. In a Sept. 18 letter to the district, TVM attorney Evans Bailey requested the 911 transcripts related to the two incidents within seven days.
The district’s attorney, Julian Butler, responded in an email that the Decatur City Attorney’s Office informed the district “that their objection to releasing the material you requested at this time is ‘pending criminal case and pending civil litigation.’ Records regarding pending criminal investigations have long been held as not subject to public disclosure.”
Butler could not be reached for comment on the complaint.
Then on Sept. 29, TVM’s attorneys emailed Butler asking that the city attorney’s office withdraw its objections, explaining there is no “pending civil litigation” exception to the open records law and the “pending criminal investigation” exception did not apply on its face based on the plain language of the code, did not apply to the district and did not apply to the transcripts at issue under the circumstances.
“An essential function of TVM is gathering information from public records for publication in The Decatur Daily in order that the workings of public institutions not be conducted in secret but rather be subject to public review,” according to the complaint. “The public is entitled to understand and intelligently consider the affairs of such institutions and cannot do so without access to information from public records.”
The district was given an additional seven days to produce the requested records, but did not produce them, according to the complaint.
According to the complaint, the district routinely releases 911 transcripts involving alleged crimes to Tennessee Valley Media when requested, and several examples are cited. “These transcripts were released without regard to the investigative status of any alleged crimes,” the suit charges.
The suit further states that none of the requested transcripts are “investigative reports, records, field notes, witness statements or other investigative writings or recordings” generated as part of a criminal investigation which would be protected by law. “The 911 calls which have been transcribed were made before any criminal investigation was begun,” according to the lawsuit. “The district is not a branch of law enforcement and cannot borrow a law enforcement privilege from another branch of government.”
The lawsuit states that “the fact that public records are collected as part of a criminal investigation does not transform public records into confidential records.”
TVM is also asking that the district pay the costs of the suit and reasonable attorneys’ fees.