Irwin’s Bill Reduces Government Transparency in Death Records

As California recovers from the strong public response to the COVID-19 outbreak, one proposed state measure by Ventura County’s representative would make it more difficult to research and discover causes of death, including deaths due to COVID-19.

California Assembly Member Jacqui Irwin has authored a new bill, AB 268, which would add Section 27523 to the government code and change what the county medical examiner’s office is allowed to reveal to the public. The bill would “prohibit the disclosure of any report of death, autopsy report, investigation summary, toxicology report, coroner’s register, file or other record, working paper, or note relating to a postmortem examination or autopsy of a decedent.”

This bill is titled “An act to add Section 27523 to the Government Code, relating to privacy.” It would create a state-mandated program allowing autopsy information to be released only to the decedent’s next of kin, personal representative, parent, child, grandparents, grandchild, sibling, spouse or domestic partner, and others, if certain evidence of identity is provided. Irwin states her reason for changing the existing California law in the text of the bill. She writes, “Protecting the confidentiality of a decedent’s autopsy records will help decedent’s families avoid additional trauma and privacy violations.”

While Irwin’s bill may help keep some decedent’s family members protected, critics say it could limit public perception of transparency in county and state agencies and impede transparency regarding critical information pertinent to appropriate investigations necessary for public health and safety.  

Since 1953, the Brown Act has protected the public’s right to be informed of vital information from our public agencies. Critics say changing the availability of death notifications and autopsy reports during a significant pandemic is cause for concern.

The Brown Act was introduced because politicians and state and county agencies were discovered having secret meetings and study sessions to deliberate on subjects of high importance to the public. The Brown Act protects the rights of the public and states that “the people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

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