Reject AB 268, an unjustified restriction on access to autopsy records

Assembly Bill 268, introduced by Asm. Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, is motivated by the best of intentions.

Last year, relatives of many of the dozen victims of the tragic 2018 mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill filed a lawsuit to the block release of records pertaining to the incident, citing privacy concerns.

AB 268, sponsored by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, would require the sealing of “the autopsy report and any evidence associated with the examination” of someone killed as a result of a criminal act upon the request of a relative. The bill would also require such records to be sealed  “when a prosecutorial agency has concluded all persons who could have been prosecuted for the criminal act have died.”

Under current law, public agencies already have the discretion to redact information contained in autopsy reports if doing so is in the public interest. For cases where there are stronger disputes over privacy protections and the public interest, the court system is fully capable of adjudicating such disputes. But what AB 268 seeks to do is to broadly exclude information that is in the public interest on arbitrary grounds.

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The First Amendment Coalition notes two problems with the bill.  “[AB 268] allows family members who have witnessed or played a role in the decedent’s death, but were not prosecuted in the death, to invoke the sealing process. Second, it grants prosecutorial agencies broad and unfettered discretion to make findings that could result in sealing,” the First Amendment Coalition argues.

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The American Civil Liberties Union likewise notes that the law “threatens to reduce access to records that could provide information regarding the cause of death of a person due to inappropriate and unlawful conduct by law enforcement,” by requiring the sealing of records upon the discretion of prosecutors.

Finally, the proposal would undermine the ability of the press to accurately report on incidents like mass shootings which, by their nature, merit public scrutiny.

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As with anything in public policy, there are competing interests and tradeoffs to any decision. AB 268 simply goes too far in subverting access to information in the public interest. It should be rejected.

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Source:: Los Angeles Daily News

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