From: Freeman, Robert (DOS)
Sent: Tuesday, March 03, 2009 9:54 AM
Welcome to the Committee on Open Government
As you suggested, autopsy reports are generally deniable, and rights of access are governed not by the Freedom of Information Law, but rather by provisions in section 677 of the County Law.
In most instances, the fact of a death is not a secret and the identity of a deceased is made known to the public; what may be withheld from the public are the details associated with the death, i.e., the contents of an autopsy report. That being so, in ordinary circumstances, the deletion of the name of the deceased would not serve to protect privacy. However, in the extraordinary circumstance to which you referred, a tragedy involving fifty deaths, disclosure of the substance of the autopsy reports following the deletion of names or other personal details would likely preclude the recipients of the reports from identifying particular victims.
Due to the language of section 677 of the County Law, I do not believe that a court would require that the reports be disclosed following the deletion of identifying details. However, as suggested in the attached opinion, there is nothing in that statute that forbids a coroner, a medical examiner or other public official from disclosing the reports with or without identifying details. If the goal of section 677 is to protect privacy, I believe that a compelling contention (not a contention based on the law) can be made that there would be no harm or invasion of privacy that could occur by disclosing the autopsy reports after personally identifying details are deleted.
If you would like to discuss the matter, please feel free to contact me.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman