A local news station that successfully sought recorded 911 calls from an ongoing investigation into a deadly Carroll County house fire was handed a reversal Wednesday. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that the dispatch center was entitled to withhold the calls as investigatory records of law enforcement agencies.
In 2017, former Fox 59 TV news reporter Aishah Hasnie requested the release of the 911 calls under Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act. The calls related to a November 2016 house fire in Flora that killed four children.
Hasnie’s request was declined after the dispatch center told her the investigation was still ongoing, so both the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department and Carroll County prosecutor were “exercising their discretion not to permit disclosure of such recording or recordings at this time, pursuant to [Indiana Code Section] 5-14-3-4(b)(1).”
Despite an opinion of the Indiana Public Access Counselor saying the dispatch center was required to disclose the 911 calls to Hasnie, the center continued to refuse to release them, prompting the reporter’s lawsuit.
Fox 59 later moved to substitute itself as the real party in interest for Hasnie and moved for summary judgment. Although the dispatch center objected to the substitution of parties, the Marion Superior Court granted the substitution and entered summary judgment for the Indianapolis TV station.
But a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed that decision Wednesday, holding that the dispatch center was entitled to withhold the 911 calls.
“The Dispatch Center is a call relay center, not a law enforcement agency. Nonetheless, we agree with the Dispatch Center that the exception for investigatory records of law enforcement agencies applies to the 9-1-1 calls here,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the appellate panel.
Citing Lane-El v. Spears, 13 N.E.3d 859, 871-72 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014), trans. denied, the appellate court noted 911 calls can be excepted from disclosure under the APRA when requested from a law enforcement agency directly.
“Thus, consistent with the plain text of the statute and pursuant to our holding in Lane-El, we conclude that the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment for Fox 59. It would be incongruous to hold, as we did in Lane-El, that 9-1-1 calls may be withheld from public disclosure when requested directly from the law enforcement agency that compiled them, but then to hold otherwise when the records are instead sought from the dispatch center that originally received the calls,” the appellate panel wrote.
“… Fox 59’s argument on appeal would effectively nullify APRA’s exception for the investigatory records of law enforcement agencies,” the panel added.
The appellate court also rejected additional arguments presented by Fox 59, finding that the news station was not entitled to summary judgment based on the designated evidence and that the appellate court is not bound by the PAC’s opinion, among other things.
However, the COA held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it permitted Fox 59 to substitute itself for Hasnie after she left her employment with the news station, finding Hasnie at the time was seeking the records pursuant to her employment with Fox 59.
The appellate court therefore affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings in the case of Carroll County E911 v. Aishah Hasnie, 19A-MI-2682.