(EDITOR'S NOTE: Article updated 11-17-17)
When it comes to releasing 911 audio tapes, under the Public Information Act, the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association says Garrett County officials are refusing to follow “clear advice” set by the Maryland Attorney General.
Garrett County Attorney Gorman E. Getty III responded to a Cumberland Times-News PIA request for written and audio 911 recordings that include an early January missing persons report made in the case of Alexander Stevens from the Pine Swamp Road area.
Stevens, 24, of Frostburg, was found dead on Jan. 4 within the Savage River State Forest in Garrett County.
Megan Virginia Shaffer, 21, of Carpendale, W.Va., has been charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and assisting another to commit or attempt to commit suicide. A plea hearing in the State of Maryland versus Shaffer has been set for Dec. 6.
While efforts were underway by Natural Resources Police and other emergency responders to locate the pair, Shaffer made a 911 call to authorities to provide her location. With the assistance of the MSP helicopter, Stevens’s body was located in the State Forest a short while later.
“Those (911) calls … are intended to be verbatim transcripts of the actual calls,” Getty said via email referring to written records given to CTN and other news organizations.
However, audio recordings of the calls will not be released, he said.
“(Garrett County) will withhold the actual tape recordings of those calls,” Getty said.
That decision is based on correspondence Getty sent to Office of Attorney General Public Access Ombudsman Lisa A. Kershner, Esquire, earlier this year.
In that correspondence, Getty states he’s followed — for more than the last three decades — his own interpretation of the issue.
The Attorney General’s office in 1986 opined that 911 communications were indeed subject to the Public Information Act.
However, the focus of that particular opinion related primarily to the PIA itself and not provisions under Maryland’s wiretapping statute, he said.
A footnote in the opinion acknowledges “taping of such emergency telephone calls is lawful, notwithstanding the general prohibition against wiretapping,” he said.
Getty said officials, including agents of a governmental emergency communication center, may intercept wire, oral or electronic communication.
“But there is no express provision that authorizes the dissemination of the information,” he said.
Getty said she shared her concerns with the state’s Attorney General’s office in 1986.
“The issues remain unresolved,” he said.
“In representing local governments as a County Attorney for well more than 30 years, I have continued to interpret the Public Information Act and the Wire Tap Statute in a manner that prohibits the disclosure of the actual contents of the (911) tapes themselves,” he stated.
“We have in each instance of a denial … advised the requesting party of their right to seek a review of our interpretation with the courts,” he said. “That has never occurred.”
On Wednesday, Charles D. Tobin, of Ballard Spahr LLP in Washington, D.C., counsel to the MDDC Press Association, said he “strongly disagrees” with the county.
“For several reasons, I think the Garrett County attorney is wrong and that the recording is a public record,” Tobin said via email.
“It's really odd … to see an official, in denying the request, acknowledge that he is refusing to follow the clear advice of the state's Attorney General,” Tobin said.
"A transcript is no substitute under the law,” Tobin said. “The Attorney General has expressly said the recordings themselves are a public record."
Tobin also said that because call centers are expressly permitted to record 911 calls, “the Wire Tap Statute should not even come into play.”
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