Ventura County leaders have agreed to sponsor legislation barring Ventura County death records disclosure/access to the general public. Whether this will have a knock on effect on California State Death Records remains to be seen. California’s open records law however could be seen as retracing it’s steps according to 1st Amendment advocates. The vote by the Ventura county board of Supervisors to introduce the bill was unanimous. The bill seeks to keep death investigations and autopsies private. The detail for proposed changes has not been made specific and legislation has not currently been drafted. Ventura County’s chief medical examiner has intimated that he is in favour of not releasing death records for public consumption and this to extend to journalists. The Chief Medical Officer refers to The California Public Records Act (availability of death records) as not clearly protecting the privacy of families. Under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) an individual is afforded certain rights protecting their medical records and these rights should be extended to their death records. The details of an individual’s death records vary widely and references how they died which may well be very painful and traumatic for immediate family members. Records can also reference lifestyle, detailed anatomical references, medical history and health.
Records can be intrusive and if the circumstances determine a medical examiner’s attendance then invariably this is a very personal and private experience. Relatives of those who had their life taken by violence may well prefer to keep those records private and that the immediate family of the deceased should have the final decision. There are around a 1000 applications each year for Ventura County death records. However records requests soared following the shooting in November 2018 at The Borderline Bar and Grill (Thousand Oaks) killing 12 people, was this morbid curiosity or genuine requests? Again should the privacy and wishes of relatives be acknowledged and protected. The vote which was originally reported on by The Ventura County Star also confirmed that the investigation is drawing to a close and officials advise autopsy records would be released upon conclusion. Some relatives have contacted the Chief Medical Officer and made strong representations that the reports are not made public mindful of the graphic descriptions contained therein.
In order to provide accountability and transparency in government State law allows access for the public and media. If there is deemed an ‘unwarranted invasion’ of privacy and/or a criminal investigation is ongoing exceptions can be made. The 1st Amendment Coalition though puts forward that while it is clearly a sensitive issue there is a wider public interest. The results and detail from death records can be of great benefit to the wider community in bringing about policy change, police accountability, job site safety to prevent any similar fatalities, foster care and consumer product safety. The Ventura Star, while investigating Dr J Smith, accessed Ventura County death records and other reports. After Smith’s dismissal some 4 years ago it was found that Smith’s assistant had been examining bodies (with no license) while Smith was on holiday.
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