Preserve access to basic name, cause and manner of death provided by coroners: Vote NO on HB 297

  • Oct 21, 2016

PRESERVE ACCESS TO BASIC NAME, CAUSE AND MANNER OF DEATH PROVIDED BY CORONERS

VOTE “NO” ON HOUSE BILL 297

Summary of legislation: House Bill 297 was introduced in January 2015. At that time and through Oct. 19, 2016, the legislation proposed to create a new law, “the Release of Coroner and Medical Examiner Information Act,” that would have prohibited the release of the identity of a deceased person until next of kin was notified or 72 hours “following the determination of the identity of the deceased individual or the cause and manner of the death, whichever occurs first.” 

At a hearing of the Senate Local Government Committee on Oct. 19, 2016, without any testimony, the bill was radically amended.  Now, instead of a 72-hour blackout period, the bill provides that “the coroner or medical examiner shall not disclose to the public the name of the deceased or the cause and manner of death,” in many circumstances (emphasis added). It expressly prohibits any release that would disclose “medical history” information, “test results” and “drug test results.” The effect of this bill would be to impose a total blackout, in many circumstances, on basic, public information available through medical examiners and coroners’ offices. It is both unnecessary and in conflict with current law.

Action Needed: The bill has already passed the House and received first consideration in the Senate on Oct. 19, 2016. Contact members of the Senate to oppose HB 297. Find your Senator here. In addition, we urge you to editorialize against HB 297.

Coroners and medical examiners are public officials, paid with public funds.  They have been established as impartial, medically competent officials to determine the cause, time and manner of deaths in questionable circumstances, such as homicides, suicides, accidental and often sudden and unexplained deaths. The public depends on these officials to find out whether a death is natural, accidental or criminal, and their rulings are most valuable when delivered promptly, while public attention is high, and support for necessary changes in policy, law, or behavior is strong. 

Without public knowledge of coroners’ findings related to drug overdoses, the public’s understanding of the nature and extent of the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania would be much diminished - and the response to the crisis would not be as strong.  Under this bill, as amended, coroners could withhold information that would inform parents and other community members about dangerous teen behavior, alcohol and drug abuse issues in a community, and criminal activity.  Indeed, the very important work of the late Pete Shellem, a former Patriot-News (Harrisburg) reporter, whose reporting led to overturned convictions and the freeing of wrongly imprisoned citizens, would have been impossible without access to coroner records.

The Right to Know Law, in conjunction with the Coroner’s Act, already protects investigative records and related information.  Name, cause and manner of death – the most basic of coroner information – are expressly public under these laws and must remain so.  HB297 is unnecessary, overbroad, and will only create confusion and conflict in interpreting existing law and the public’s right to know.

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