The Maine Department of Public Safety wants to change state law so the public would no longer have access to certain records from 911 calls related to domestic violence, sexual assaults or personal medical information.

“An Act To Protect the Privacy and Dignity of Persons Calling E-9-1-1 for Help” has not yet been drafted into a bill. But the department’s goal is to block disclosure of some personal information that the public can now access, department spokesman Stephen McCausland said Wednesday.

“It would shield certain 911 information from public dissemination, particularly extraordinarily personal information they receive involving three areas – sexual assaults, domestic violence and personal medical information – usually given by the caller in very traumatic times,” McCausland said.

State law now prohibits public release of audio recordings of 911 calls, but permits access to written transcripts in many circumstances. The state can withhold transcripts if authorities convince a judge that disclosure could compromise an active criminal investigation or legal proceeding.

The proposed bill follows two cases in which the Portland Press Herald sued the state for access to 911 transcripts.

In August, a Superior Court judge ordered the state to give the Press Herald the transcript of a 911 call from the wife of a Windham man who was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy in April.

In November 2013, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court unanimously rejected the state’s longstanding, blanket practice of withholding 911 transcripts in homicide cases and opened the door for future requests to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

The high court also ordered the state to release three 911 transcripts to the Press Herald in a shooting case involving a Biddeford landlord. James Pak is accused of killing two teenagers and wounding an adult minutes after police left the apartment where officers had investigated a tenant-landlord dispute involving Pak and the victims.

McCausland said the department’s proposal is not a response to the Press Herald’s court victories. He said the department is looking to tighten “loose ends” in the current language of the law.

He said the bill would not change state law related to homicides, which are addressed under a distinct section of criminal law, but would focus on “lesser” criminal cases and incidents.

McCausland said no particular incident or 911 call prompted the department’s proposal, and that department managers came to the decision collectively. He could not immediately identify incidents or cases that raised their concerns.

Sigmund Schutz, the attorney who represented the Press Herald in its public access cases last year, said the Department of Public Safety has bypassed the usual process by proposing legislation rather than presenting its concerns to the state’s Right to Know Advisory Committee.

“My suspicion is, this is a reaction to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision, that this is an effort to pare back the public’s right to know about the E-9-1-1 system,” Schutz said.

He said any restriction of public access would reduce public oversight and the public’s ability to hold police agencies accountable.

Questions have been raised recently in the national media about whether police have responded adequately to reports of sexual assaults on college campuses. Similar questions could come up in Maine, Schutz said.

“I would say that rape and domestic violence are not minor incidents and we should have just as much oversight of the 911 system when someone is sexually assaulted or a victim of domestic violence as when someone is murdered,” he said.

Schutz noted that state law already prohibits the release of personal medical information.

State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he expects that whatever bill is drafted will be presented to the Judiciary Committee, rather than his committee. But he said he would vote against such a measure.

“I don’t see the advantage of secrecy, unless there is a reason that can be justified to a judge,” said Dion, a lawyer who is a former Cumberland County sheriff and Portland police officer.

State Sen. Linda Valentino, a co-chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @scottddolan

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