Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

South Carolina Supreme Court Rules 911 Tapes Must Be Released

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that a 911 tape documenting a store owner's call for assistance is subject to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act (S. C. Code Ann. Secs. 30-4-10 through 30-4-165 (1991 & Supp. 2004)). The Evening Post Publishing Company, publishing as the Post and Courier, had requested release of the tape, but the City of North Charleston, citing concerns over an upcoming trial of four men charged with attacking the man fatally shot in the ensuing incident, had refused to release the material. The newspaper lost at the trial and appellate levels and appealed to the Supreme Court.

On appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the Court of Appeals erred when it held that "harm is irrefutably presumed when the subject of the FOIA request will be evidence in a prospective criminal trial. We reject this categorical rule in favor of the usual case-by-case approach. The City was required to prove particular harm." Noting that "[t]he City argue[d] that pre-trial release of the tape would have led to substantial pre-trial publicity, which likely would have tained the entire jury pool, causing the venue of the trial to be changed", the Supreme Court still found that this particular harm was not the harm "that section 30-4-40(a)(3)(B) is intened to prevent. Rather, it is intended to prevent harms such as those caused by release of a crime suspect's name before arrest, the location of an upcoming sting operation, and other sensitive law-enforcement information. We do not close the door to pre-trial publicity ever factoring into a decision whether this exemption applies. We hold only that the financial burden of a potential change in venue did not justify withholding the 911 tape."

Noted the court, "[t]he City was not entitled to a presumption that it would be harmed by disclosure of the 911 tape's contents. The City was required to prove that it would suffer particular harm...The City's non-disclosure therefore violated FOIA."

Read the decision here.

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