Peculiar opinion by PAC allows withholding of 911 tapes

Journalists around Indiana are used to getting copies of 911 recordings to provide insight into stories about crimes in their areas. Access to those records is threatened now, however, after a decision last month by Indiana Public Access Counselor Heather Neal that allows the tapes to be considered law enforcement investigatory records. The Associated Press details the case.

The Associated Press

The state’s public access counselor has found no violation by Wayne County officials in refusing to release a 911 tape in their investigation of the deaths of two Centerville sisters in September.

The bodies of Erin Stanley, 19, and Kelly Stanley, 18, were found six days apart in the home they shared with their parents just west of Richmond.

Erin Stanley’s boyfriend, James McFarland Jr., 23, was charged Wednesday with murder in Erin’s death, but authorities would not say whether he might also be linked to the death of her younger sister.

The Palladium-Item of Richmond sought the release of a 911 tape recorded on Sept. 1, the day Erin Stanley’s body was found, but Public Access Counselor Heather Neal said Friday that Prosecutor Mike Shipman was justified in refusing the newspaper’s request.

The prosecutor’s office “is a law enforcement agency under the APRA (Access to Public Records Act) and as such has the discretion to withhold from disclosure investigatory records compiled in the course of the investigation of a crime,” Neal said in a letter to Palladium-Item reporter Bill Engle, who has written stories on the case and made the request for disclosure of the tape.

Engle said he was “puzzled” by the access counselor’s finding.

“I’m puzzled by the power that it gives the prosecutor or another official from a police agency to … pretty randomly decide what is part of an investigation and what is not,” he said.

The Palladium-Item argued that the 911 tape was not created as part of the investigation.

“We’re saying it is part of the daily activity of the 911 center, the dispatch center, therefore it’s just a public document,” he said.

However, Neal said records gathered in the course of a criminal investigation may be withheld from disclosure under an exception to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“The legislature has put in place this exception to allow law enforcement agencies to conduct their investigations without disclosing all of their investigatory tools,” she wrote.

The prosecutor’s assertion that the 911 tape was part of the materials compiled in the investigation sustains the burden of proof required under Indiana law, Neal said.