Senate OKs bill that shields tapes, videos

ATLANTA — Legislation initially meant to keep gruesome crime scene photos from being published would now shield some 911 tapes and police car videos from the public eye, thanks to a change approved by the state Senate this week.

House Bill 1322 initially was written in response to an open records request from Hustler magazine. A magazine writer wanted crime scene photos showing the decapitated body of Meredith Emerson, a Georgia hiker killed in 2008.

Legislators were appalled. Speaker of the House David Ralston introduced the bill this year, saying it would be narrowly construed to limit the release of photos showing nude or mutilated bodies.

It would not, he said, constitute a major overhaul of the state’s open records laws. But Tuesday the state Senate voted unanimously to change Ralston’s bill. Now it also exempts police and other government “audio or video recordings of the personal suffering of a person in physical pain or distress” from the open records law and prevents the release of recordings that “would cause emotional distress” to the victims or their families.

The change has some open government advocates worried, though Ralston said Thursday the issue will get a thorough review before the bill passes back through the House, as it must to become law.

“I am aware of (the changes), and I’m a little concerned about them,” Ralston said. “I’m a strong believer in open records and open government.

“If there’s any further closing up of information ... I’m going to have to take a very, very hard and long look at it.”

It’s not clear from the legislation who would decide whether 911 tapes and police videos — from the in-car cameras that are relatively common in patrol vehicles — would cause “emotional distress” if released. Pictures covered by the original bill could be viewed by members of the media with the consent of the GBI, but the new language about audio and video recordings doesn’t seem to carry this caveat.

State Sen. Donzella James, D-College Park, called for this new language in the Senate, and an attempt to reach her on these points Thursday was not successful.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate, said he wasn’t particularly familiar with the details of the bill. But he said he was confident the House and Senate will get together on a bill “that, in the end, makes good public policy.”

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.