State Politics

PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Bill would restrict release of 911 tapes

TALLAHASSEE — John Hoblick was out of town when his 16-year-old son died after a night of drinking games and illegal prescription drugs.

The next day, he heard the 911 call on Orlando-area TV news. “It caused a lot of anguish,” he said. “There’s no reason to exploit someone that way.”

So Hoblick made it his personal mission to ban the public release of 911 tapes to protect victims and families. And while most parents-turned-crusaders find the lawmaking process cold and ineffectual, the Florida Farm Bureau president’s effort is getting fast-tracked thanks to support from House Speaker Larry Cretul.

A House committee Wednesday is expected to consider the controversial legislation, which would exempt 911 calls from public record but make transcripts available after a 60-day wait and a charge. And with a narrow vote expected, Cretul has employed a little-used rule adding his top lieutenant to the committee to help guarantee passage.

The speaker’s role as the force behind the legislation — and Hoblick’s advocacy on behalf of his family — is largely unknown. A week ago, the chairman of the House committee considering the measure, Rep. Robert Schenck, refused to disclose its origins.

But in an interview Tuesday, Cretul acknowledged Hoblick pushed the measure. “He came to me and explained his tragic situation — how every time the play-back occurred it was just a recycling of what that family went through,” the Ocala Republican said.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvers are generating even more criticism for a measure under scrutiny from a number of Democratic lawmakers and media organizations.

“There is no opportunity to hold emergency services accountable without having access to these tapes,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, which supports open government initiatives on behalf of the media.

The revelation that the bill originated from “someone who has special access is bothersome,” she added.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday he opposed restricting the release of 911 tapes. “I think we ought to keep it open,” he said. “You have that kind of transparency where the truth is more available and easily accessible.”

Under the proposed committee bill, the public would not have access to a recording of a 911 call. Interested parties — including the media and possibly attorneys — would have to wait 60 days and request a transcript at their own expense. Identifying information in 911 calls is already exempt from review.

The outcry prompted supporters to draft a late amendment, offered as a compromise, that would allow access with a court order “showing good cause.”

But Petersen said media organizations still oppose the measure because the cost of a transcription or hiring attorneys is too cost prohibitive. A number of media reports have used the 911 tapes to raise questions about whether operators appropriately handled calls.

“Yes, it’s terribly traumatic for families involved, but there is a larger greater good that is achieved for having access to these tapes,” she said.

Hoblick feels the opposite.

His teenage son Jake died May 30 at the family’s home in DeLeon Springs. A friend of his son told investigators they played drinking games with alcohol and experimented with prescription drugs like oxycodone into the early morning hours.

Hoblick’s eldest son, John Jr., 20, found his brother unresponsive the next day and called 911.

He mumbled as he spoke, telling operators his brother wasn’t breathing. The call lasts about a minute.

Orlando-area television networks aired a portion of the tape, stopping it before a graphic portion near the end. But Hoblick, a prominent foliage grower in the area and owner of Hoblick Greens Inc., still called the media’s coverage “invasive.”

“Where’s the public decency in all this?” he said in an interview. “The innocent people who call 911 at the weakest moment in their lives or in desperate act of need shouldn’t have to worry about being exploited.”

Hoblick insists this is a personal matter disconnected from his role as president of the 140,000-member Farm Bureau.

But Cretul, whose district includes the organization’s Gainesville headquarters, said he didn’t know Hoblick outside his position.

The speaker said Hoblick approached him at a Florida Chamber of Commerce event in Orlando and later met with him in his office.

“Speaker Cretul said, ‘John, we’ll get it done,’ ’’ Hoblick recalled.

Not all victims want to close access to 911 tapes. Peggy and Mark Lee’s daughter-in-law was killed two years ago after 911 dispatchers in Charlotte County mishandled a number of calls after her abduction, including one from a witness pinpointing her abductor’s location.

Mark Lee said his family didn’t like hearing the calls played again and again but argued public disclosure is necessary. “It’s counter-productive to what everyone wants, which is public awareness,” he said.

In his case, a transcript of the call wouldn’t have conveyed the problem. “It’s like a song,” he said. “Hearing a song is a lot more powerful than reading the lyrics.”

A number of lawmakers plan to make this argument when the legislation is considered today. Cretul temporarily assigned Speaker Pro Tem Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, to the committee to corral Republican votes and likely cast the deciding vote to propel the measure through committee.

State Rep. Scott Randolph, a Democrat on the committee, said the speaker’s strong hand in the bill is an issue.

“The people are so upset with government because the process is so broken,” he said.

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