Lawsuits filed over possible release of Pulse shooting 911 calls

By : Alex Storer
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Two lawsuits are filed in Orange County in an attempt to clarify the potential public release of 911 calls related to the Pulse shooting.

The first lawsuit, filed by the City of Orlando June 23, asks the Orange County court to clarify how the City should proceed with the recordings of 603 calls made to 911 during the Pulse shooting and four calls between emergency services and the shooter, Omar Mateen. According to their lawsuit, which names the Associated Press as a defendant, the City hasn’t yet released the calls “out of respect for the Pulse shooting victims and their families.”

In a letter to the City, Paul Wysopal of the FBI wrote that “the FBI has a strong interest in protecting such information and records from public disclosure until such time as the risks associated with their disclosure have expired.”

The City’s lawsuit lists the FBI’s request to withhold the records as another reason they haven’t yet been released.

Additionally, the lawsuit cites two sections of Florida’s public records law — one of the broadest in the country — that the City says back up its decision to not release the calls. The first section they point to is one that makes a “photograph or video or audio recording that depicts or records the killing of a person” exempt from public records requests, while another exempts “active criminal intelligence information and active criminal investigative information.”

In a press release, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer expressed a desire for clarity and to find a middle ground between openness and reticence.

“It is important that we are completely open with the community about what happened that night at Pulse,” Dyer said in the release. “We support the FBI’s commitment not to compromise the integrity of the investigation, but we must balance that with our responsibility to be transparent with the Orlando community and comply with state and federal laws.”

The second lawsuit, which was announced by the Miami Herald about 30 minutes after the City announced their legal action to the press via email, was initiated by 25 plaintiffs, including ABC, CBS, the New York Times, the Herald, the Orlando Sentinel and Gannett, the media conglomerate that oversees USA TODAY and FLORIDA TODAY. Note: Watermark Publishing Group is not a plaintiff. The 25 organizations are all suing the City of Orlando to release the recordings of hundreds of calls made to 911 during the Pulse shooting. Their lawsuit holds that “there is a strong public interest in fully evaluating how first responders and police reacted during the most critical phases of this incredible tragedy” and that “disclosure may in fact help prevent future attacks or minimize casualties.”

The lawsuit also attacks the City’s claim that anything recording a person’s death is exempt from public record requests, stating “no recordings created during [Mateen’s standoff with police] could have captured any killings” because “the federal government has stated that there were no reports of gunfire during the three-hour standoff.”

The lawsuit filed by media requests a prompt court date. A hearing has not yet been scheduled.

This isn’t the first time confusion has arisen over the release of information regarding the Pulse shooting. In a press conference held on the afternoon of June 12 — mere hours after the massacre — Dyer said that staff at Orlando Regional Medical Center had asked the White House to waive HIPAA regulations regarding medical records. The hospital staff asked for relief because, under their interpretation of HIPAA, they considered themselves unable to legally disclose information about their patients’ medical conditions to loved ones who had no familial or legal relation (presumably their gay partners).

As reported by the Washington Post, the Department of Health and Human Services says there wasn’t any need to get an exemption from HIPAA because disclosures of a patient’s condition and status “are permissible without a waiver to help identify incapacitated patients, or to locate family members of patients to share information about their condition. Disclosures are permissible to same sex, as well as opposite sex, partners.”

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