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Thursday, June 22, 2023

Court Addresses 911 Recordings and Caller Identity in FOIA Case

The Illinois Appellate Court recently ruled in favor of a sheriff's department in a case involving a FOIA request for 911 recordings. Edgar County Watchdogs v. Will County Sheriff's Office

A watchdog group filed multiple FOIA requests to a sheriff's department asking for copies of 911 calls and reports and other records relating to two parks. The department provided activity and police reports, with redactions, but denied the requests for 911 recordings. The group filed a lawsuit against the department claiming its denial of the request for 911 recordings and its redaction of reports violated FOIA. The lawsuit sought attorneys fees and costs.

The department argued that the 911 recordings were exempt under FOIA because they included statements by individuals who file complaints or provide information to law enforcement and could not be altered or redacted to protect the speaker's identity. The circuit court ruled in favor of the watchdog group and ordered the department to provide either (1) altered audio recordings to mask callers' identities or (2) transcripts of the 911 calls. The court also ordered the department to provide unredacted versions of the victim statements in the police reports. 

The department appealed the court's decision ordering it to release altered video recordings. In a previous decision on this appeal, the Court upheld the circuit court's order that the department provide altered versions of the 911 calls but rejected the circuit court's order that the department provide a transcript. On the department's motion for a rehearing, the Appellate Court modified its ruling on the altered 911 recordings, holding that because the department did not have the ability to scramble or disguise audio recordings to mask the identity of a 911 caller, it did not have to provide the recordings in their unaltered form. The Court again held that producing a transcript of the 911 calls constitutes the creation of a new record which is not required by FOIA. 

It is important to note that the Court rejected the department's argument that all 911 calls are "automatically" exempt from disclosure because the content would reveal the caller's identity, finding that not all recordings would necessarily disclose a caller's identity. 


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