July 25, 1996

In re: Ronnie Landrum/Breathitt County Coroner


This matter comes to the Attorney General on appeal from the actions of Gene Watts, the Breathitt County Coroner, relative to Ronnie Landrum's request to inspect public records pertaining to autopsy and toxicology reports. On May 28, 1996, Mr. Landrum requested “a complete copy of the Autopsy and Toxicology Reports of James Stamper and Denver Lee Stamper . . . .”

Mr. Landrum sent this office a letter, dated June 17, 1996, stating that as of that date, he had still not received a response to his request. Mr. Landrum asked that this office review the request, and issue a written decision stating whether Mr. Watts violated the provisions of the Open Records Act.

In response to this office's notification of appeal, Mr. Watts advised this office as follows:

Frank Fletcher was Coroner on this case and when I took office, he didn't turn any records over.

Mr. Watts did not elaborate, nor did he forward a copy of this response to Mr. Landrum.

The question presented in this Open Records Appeal is whether the Breathitt County Coroner violated the provisions of KRS 61.870 through KRS 61.884 in responding to Mr. Landrum's request. It is the opinion of this office that although Mr. Watts's response was procedurally deficient, it was substantively correct. Nevertheless, because this appeal raises records management issues, we have referred it to the Department for Libraries and Archives for a determination as to whether the coroner may have violated the provisions of Chapter 171, and in particular those statutes relating to records retention and recovery.

KRS 61.880(1) sets forth procedural guidelines for agency response to an open records request. That statute provides:

Each public agency, upon any request for records made under KRS 61.870 to 61.884, shall determine within three (3) days, excepting Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays, after the receipt of any such request whether to comply with the request and shall notify in writing the person making the request, within the three (3) day period, of its decision. An agency response denying, in whole or in part, inspection of any record shall include a statement of the specific exception authorizing the withholding of the record and a brief explanation of how the exception applies to the record withheld. The response shall be issued by the official custodian or under his authority, and it shall constitute final agency action.

Because Mr. Watts failed to respond to Mr. Landrum's request in writing, and within three business days, his actions constituted a procedural violation of the Open Records Act. To date, Mr.Watts has failed to notify Mr. Landrum of the disposition of his request. We urge Mr. Watts to review the Open Records Act, particularly the cited provision, so that as a public servant he becomes familiar with the Open Records Act so that errors in responding to open records requests are avoided. [1]

Turning to the substantive issues in this appeal, we find that the current coroner has properly advised that he cannot satisfy Mr. Landrum's request since these records are not in his custody. This office has consistently recognized that a public agency cannot furnish access to documents which it does not have or which do not exist. OAG 83-111; OAG 87-54; OAG 88-5; OAG 91-203; 94-ORD-65.

KRS 61.872(4) provides:

If the person to whom the application is directed does not have custody or control of the public record requested, that person shall notify the applicant and shall furnish the name and location of the official custodian of the agency's public records.

Mr.Watts indicates that the records Mr. Landrum seeks may be in the custody of the previous coroner, and identifies the former coroner. In our view, this response is substantively consistent with the Open Records Act. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we must assume the truthfulness of the Mr.Watts's assertion that the requested records are not in his custody. We reiterate, however, that the coroner's response should have been sent to Mr. Landrum.

Nevertheless, as a public official Mr.Watts has an obligation relative to proper records management and retention. KRS 61.8715 provides:

To ensure the efficient administration of government and to provide accountability of government activities, public agencies are required to manage and maintain their records according to the requirements of . . . [KRS 61.870-61.884, the Kentucky Open Records Act, KRS 171.410 to 171.740 relating to public records management, and KRS 61.940 to 61.957, relating to strategic planning for computerized information systems].

The General Assembly has thus recognized an “essential relationship” between the intent of the Open Records Act and statutes relating to proper records management. KRS 61.8715. Only through effective and efficient records management can the public be afforded full access to public records. With these observations in mind, we have referred this matter to the Department for Libraries and Archives for additional inquires as the Department deems appropriate.

A party aggrieved by this decision may appeal it by initiating action in the appropriate circuit court pursuant to KRS 61.880(5) and KRS 61.882. 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 proceeding.






Distributed to:

Ronnie Landrun #111763


Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex

P.O. box 636

West Liberty, Kentucky 41472

Gene Watts, Coroner

Watts Funeral Home

P.O. Box 945

Jackson, Kentucky 41339


[1] On June 29, 1996, Mr. Watts faxed this office his response which in no way reflected that he forwarded a copy to Mr. Landrum.