Saturday, 7 April 2007

Pa. coroners operate with no oversight

April 7, 2007


Pa. coroners operate with no oversight

By VICKY TAYLOR, Chambersburg Public Opinion

In many Pennsylvania counties, coroners do their work almost completely free
of any accountability to the public or to other county government officials.

The reason is twofold: although state law requires coroners to make many of
their records public, some -- perhaps a majority -- of coroners simply
ignore the law, and no one in county or state government seems to care.

Penalties for coroners who do not follow the law also appear to be either
weak or non-existent.

Pennsylvania's Coroner's Act is the only state law governing how coroners

handle their records and outlining how the public can gain access to those

One section in that act says:

"Every coroner, within thirty (30) days after the end of each year, shall
deposit all of his official records and papers for the preceding year in the
office of the prothonotary for the inspection of all persons interested
therein. 1955, Aug. 9, P.L. 323, Sec. 1251"

Yet only one of the 12 coroners or prothonotaries polled by Public Opinion
abide by that requirement, including the coroners in Franklin County and all
of its neighboring counties.

Most claim that their prothonotary's offices don't have room for their
records, and the Pennsylvania Coroners Association and its attorney have
come up with a way to keep the public from seeing those records, no matter
where they are stored.

"Our determination from our solicitor is that (the Coroners Act) means that
a person must have an interest above those of the general public in order to
see our records," Cumberland County Coroner Mike Norris, who sits on the
association's board, said last month.

He and Crawford County Coroner Patrick McHenry said the association
interprets the Coroners Act as meaning only people with special interest in
a case can access the coroner's records. They define that as immediate
family of the deceased, insurance companies and police investigators.

Both men define "official" records as the final report in a case that
contains the name of the deceased, the date of death, manner and cause of
death. McHenry adds a "criminality" statement to his definition, which
includes whether or not the death was due to criminal neglect, negligence or
a crime.

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association media law counsel Melissa Melewsky agrees
with McHenry's definition of "official" records, but disputes the Coroner's
Association definition of who may access to those records.

She said her association also has concerns that coroners are skirting the
requirement that they deposit those records annually in their prothonotary's
office, keeping them instead in their own offices.

"The coroner does not determine which of his official records are public,
the Coroner's Act and interpreting case law do," she said. "There is some
conflict between the courts on whether autopsies are part of the 'official
records' of the coroner but it is clear that reports listing the time, place
and manner of death are official records of the coroner and should be
accessible at the Prothonotary's office."

She said the act does not give a coroner the power to deposit his official
records anywhere other than the office of the prothonotary, and if there
isn't enough space or staff to handle the records in the prothonotary's
office, that needs to be addressed with the county's board of commissioners.

"The coroner, the prothonotary and the commissioners cannot ignore or
re-write the law for the purposes of convenience," she said.

Two of Franklin County's three commissioners have said, however, that they
have no control or oversight over either the prothonotary's or coroner's

In many cases, there seems to be no uniform procedure by county coroners on
handling of records, other than keeping them in their offices which may be
at their homes.

Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick is one of the few who follows the
requirements of the Coroners Act to deposit records annually at the
prothonotary's office.

His records, which a secretary in his office defines as his finished case
report containing the name, date of death, cause of death and lab results,
are on file and copies are also kept at his office.

Those records are available for public inspection, according to a
spokeswoman at the Dauphin County Prothonotary's office.

That isn't the case in Franklin, Fulton, Cumberland, Perry and Adams
counties, or in many other counties, including larger counties such as York,
Berks and Crawford counties.

"Historically, coroners' records have not necessarily been (kept) in the
court house," McHenry said, acknowledging that by law those records are
supposed to be filed annually in the prothonotary's office, but claiming
that the Coroners Act also gives a prothonotary the right to allow a coroner
to keep the records in his or her office.

He cites Section 405 or the act, which reads:

"a) The commissioners, auditors, controller, treasurer, sheriff, recorder of
deeds, prothonotary, clerk of courts of quarter sessions and oyer and
terminer, clerk of orphans' court, register of wills, recorder or deeds, and
district attorney shall keep their respective offices, and all public
records and papers belonging thereto, at the county seat and in such
buildings as may be erected or appropriated for such purpose. The county
commissioners shall have the power to keep and maintain records and to
contract with persons, for storage, retrieval..."

That section of the act also sets out a fine of "not exceeding $500" for
non-compliance with the act, as well as imprisonment until provisions of
that section are met, but since coroners are not specifically mentioned in
the section, it is unclear whether they or the prothonotary would be held
responsible for failure to follow the letter of the law under the act.

McHenry acknowledges that there is sometimes conflict not only about the
storage of the records and public access, but also about the exact
definition of coroners' "official" records.

"The Coroners Association is working to get legislation written that will
clarify the law," he said, including defining what constitutes an official
record and exactly who should have access to that record.

He concedes that his definition keeps information in those records sketchy.

"There is more information in an obituary than in a coroner's official
report," he said.

Access to coroners' records is important to citizens, according to Public
Opinion Editor Becky Bennett.

"Residents of many counties, including Franklin, have no way of knowing how
competently the coroner is doing his job, whether he is doing it legally and
properly, whether he keeps adequate records, and whether those records --
which belong to the public -- are safe and secure," she said.

She said coroners who refuse to comply with the Coroners Act, or take steps
to skirt the law, could become almost a law unto themselves, with no
accountability to the people who put them in a position of power - the

By way of comparison, other county officials -- prothonotary and other row
officers, sheriff, commissioners, judges and even the district attorney --
must work in public buildings, with offices open to the public and records
available for public access.

"Of course, coroners face election every four years, but voters must make
their choice without any knowledge of an incumbent coroner's actual job
performance," she said.

Melewsky said she finds it disturbing that an elected official would refuse
to allow public access to official records.

"Inspection of official records is necessary for proper oversight of any
government agency," she said, talking about Conner's and other coroners who
refuse public access to their records.

"Through his actions and refusal to comply with the Coroner's Act, Mr.
Conner is depriving the public of a significant right, one which is secured
not only in the common law traditions of democratic government, but also
guaranteed by PA statute," she said.

Coroner-reported death statistics

- Adams County: 20 traffic fatalities, 7 drug related, two homicides

- Cumberland County: 3 homicides, 17 drug related, 21 traffic fatalities

- Franklin County: ?

- Fulton County: 5 traffic fatalities, 4 drug related, 0 homicides

- Perry County: 17 traffic fatalities, 1 homicide, 2 drug overdoses

- York County: 9 homicides, 37 drug related, 58 traffic fatalities


Source : Chambersburg Public Opinion

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