July 8, 1994
IN RE: Robert M. Vanderford/Fulton County Coroner
OPEN RECORDS DECISION
Mr. Robert M. Vanderford, Manager of Vanderford Funeral Home in South Fulton, Tennessee, challenges the Fulton County Coroner's denial of his June 13, 1994, open records request to inspect and copy the Desmond Brown autopsy report prepared by the coroner in April, 1994. Mr. Joe Cole, Fulton County Coroner, denied Mr. Vanderford's request on June 16, 1994, advising him that "there is an on going [sic] criminal investigation against an individual who is alleged to have taken the life of Mr. Brown." It was therefore his position that KRS 61.878(1)(g) excludes the report from the mandatory disclosure provisions of the Open Records Law until the investigation is completed. Mr. Cole explained that an indictment has been issued in the case, and that it is expected to go to trial in late 1994. He advised Mr. Vanderford that the autopsy report would be available at the conclusion of the trial, or when all appeals had been exhausted.
We are asked to determine if the Fulton County Coroner properly relied on KRS 61.878(1)(g) in denying Mr. Vanderford request for a copy of the Desmond Brown autopsy report. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the Coroner properly denied the request.
KRS 61.878(1)(g) authorizes the nondisclosure of:
Records of law enforcement agencies or agencies involved in administrative
adjudication that were compiled in the process of detecting and investigating statutory or regulatory violations if the disclosure of the information would harm the agency by revealing the identity of informants not otherwise known or by premature release of information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or administrative adjudication. Unless exempted by other provisions of KRS 61.870 to 61.884, public records exempted under this provision shall be open after enforcement action is completed or a decision is made to take no action[.]
The Attorney General has consistently recognized that a coroner's autopsy report is exempt from the requirement of mandatory public disclosure under this exception, when criminal prosecution is contemplated, until that prosecution is concluded. When the prosecution is commenced, the coroner must retain all evidentiary materials, as well as reports of examination, "until their production in evidence is required by the prosecuting authority . . . ." KRS 72.020(2).
Mr. Cole indicates that an indictment has been issued in this case, and that criminal proceedings are imminent. It is the opinion of this Office that he was therefore warranted in his decision to withhold the autopsy report from Mr. Vanderford.
Mr. Vanderford may challenge this decision by initiating action in the appropriate circuit court. Pursuant to KRS 61.880(3), the Attorney General should be notified of
any action in circuit court, but should not be named as a party in that action or in any subsequent proceedings.
AMYE B. MAJORS
ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL
Mr. Joseph Cole
Fulton County Coroner
313 Highland Blvd.
Hickman, KY 42050
Mr. Robert M. Vanderford
Vanderford Funeral Home
114 Roach Street
South Fulton, TN 38257-0471