Coroner’s suicide reports are ruled public records
OHIO–In an early October decision, the state Supreme Court ordered Hancock County Coroner Leroy Schroeder to provide Findlay Publishing Co. death records of suicide victims he had withheld since February 1995. Schroeder said he did not provide access to these records because a number of suicide victims’ families had asked that the reports remain confidential.
The court held that state privacy laws do not prohibit the disclosure of personal information found in public records. Consequently, the court ruled that Schroeder must file all death reports, including those involving suicides, with the county clerk’s office, where they will be available to the public.
Prior to February 1995, Schroeder submitted reports of all deaths to the county clerk. He then stopped filing the reports and refused to permit public or press access to them. Following repeated requests to inspect the death reports, all of which were denied, Findlay Publishing brought a lawsuit to compel Schroeder to make the records available. In May 1996, after the suit was filed, Schroeder began submitting reports of homicides and accidental deaths to the clerk, but he continued to withhold records involving suicides.
Schroeder argued that both the privacy rights of the victims’ families and the Federal Freedom of Information Act, which provides an exemption for medical information “the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” prohibited him from releasing the records.
The court reasoned that because the Federal FOI Act does not apply to state agencies or officers, Schroeder must look to state law to determine what records are public and what records must be exempt from disclosure. The high court held that death reports are unquestionably public records under the state Open Records Act and “none of the exceptions raised by Schroeder precludes disclosure of the subject records.” The court said that requests of confidentiality by victims’ relatives do not alter the public nature of the reports. (State ex rel. Findlay Publishing v. Schroeder; Media Counsel: Ralph Russo, Columbus)