A California appellate court has ruled that coroner and autopsy records can be considered investigatory files when used by a local agency for law enforcement purposes. The decision came last month in a case involving a reporter who sought such records as she prepared a book on a murder trial.
Ruling in Dixon v. The Superior Court of El Dorado County, the Court of Appeal in Sacramento denied reporter Kathryn Dixon access to the 1971 autopsy records of Elizabeth Cloer, according to the Feb. 4 court opinion. Cloer’s homicide investigation lay largely dormant for more than 30 years until DNA evidence surfaced that would help convict Phillip Arthur Thompson of her murder.
Dixon, who had covered Thompson’s trial, planned to write a book on it, the court record said.
Before the murder trial began, Dixon’s request for Cloer’s coroner and autopsy records from the El Dorado County Sheriff-Coroner was denied, the opinion said. She appealed the matter to the El Dorado County Superior Court, and lost.
That court, having inspected the records in chambers, ruled they were exempt from disclosure because they were "investigatory files of a local agency for law enforcement purposes which involve a definite prospect of criminal law enforcement." Dixon tried to dispute that point in her next appeal, to the Third Appellate District.
There Dixon argued that coroner and autopsy reports were not specifically labeled as exempt from disclosure in the relevant portion of the California Public Records Act, and should therefore be released. But in the opinion issued last month, Justice Rodney Davis, writing for the majority, noted that the same section also exempts "investigatory" files compiled by any "local agency for . . . law enforcement . . . purposes."
"The issue is whether the coroner, as part of his local duties, compiles investigatory files for law enforcement purposes. The answer is an emphatic yes," Davis said.
A 90-year-old California Supreme Court decision recognized that a coroner’s primary purpose "is to provide a means for the prompt securing of information for the use of those who are charged with the detection and prosecution of a crime," Davis said, adding that another section of California law "implicitly recognizes that a coroner’s inquiry encompasses an investigative function performed by the coroner as a law enforcement agency."
"This exemption applies because these reports constitute an investigation of a death that was a suspected homicide in which the prospect of criminal law enforcement proceedings was concrete and definite," Davis wrote.
Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland and Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye concurred with Davis.
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, called the ruling "troubling" for the state’s newspapers and said he did not know if requesting the documents at a different time — before or during the trial, for instance — would have changed Dixon’s outcome. Still, the overall timeframe for requesting autopsy records can play a role in whether you get them, he said.
"If it’s a fresh coroner’s report, the idea might be that it’s not yet part of a law enforcement investigation, just merely a report about a death," he said, "so potentially it should be easier to get at that point."
"Under the court’s rationale," Newton said, Dixon would not have been able to get the documents even if she had requested them post-trial, since a law enforcement agency’s investigatory records permanently retain such status.