For a variety of reasons, I don't very often get the chance to talk about the sections in the Sunshine Law that relate to criminal law. But records generated by law enforcement agencies, too, come under Sunshine Law protection.
Last week, a newspaper editor called to discuss a situation in their community where an inmate had committed suicide. The local sheriff apparently decided it just wasn't that big a deal (a sad commentary on life and the value some folks place on it) and chose not to make the information available to the community. It took some digging by the local paper to access to records from that incident.
And then, the paper was told that the coroner's report on the death was a closed record. That pronouncement raises some interesting legal questions. Several years ago, the Western District Court of Appeals, in a decision that troubles me greatly, decided that coroner's reports were "investigative reports" under the Sunshine Law, and therefore were preliminary closed records within the terms of that word in the law.
Of course, the law is clear that while investigative reports are preliminarily closed records, they do become open records upon the occurring of certain events, including the decision by law enforcement to not pursue the investigation any longer because it is closed.
It was pretty clear, in this situation, that law enforcement had decided no other person was involved and therefore the agency would not pursue the investigation any further. When that happens, then it is clear the record of this coroner would become open to the public and it shouldn't have been withheld from the reporter's request.
Law enforcement often says they do this to "protect the family." Some citizens will question whether law enforcement is attempting to protect themselves...
Coming clean with the information eliminates that possibility. Seems like that was one of the early lessons I learned in my high school science classes -- sunlight can be a powerful agent for cleaning items that need purification. That same formula works here, too.