September 16, 2014

SC Supreme Court rules autopsies are not public record

SC Supreme Court building in Columbia (File)

SC Supreme Court building in Columbia (File)

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that autopsy reports are medical records and cannot be released to the public without violating privacy rights.

The 4-1 ruling ends a lawsuit filed by The Sumter Item newspaper that had been seeking the medical examiner’s autopsy report of a Sumter County man who was fatally shot by a police officer in 2010. Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock argued the report was a “medical record,” meaning it was protected by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Attorneys representing the newspaper argued that HIPAA protections did not cover 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs, who was killed by police after they said he drew a gun on them during a carjacking investigation. The newspaper was eventually able to get the autopsy findings from a different source and noted the findings were inconsistent with police reports of the incident.

A state judge sided with the coroner’s office in 2012. The Supreme Court agreed Wednesday, saying autopsy reports fall under the traditional definition of “medical record.”

“(A)n autopsy, which is performed by a medical doctor, is a thorough and invasive inquiry into the body of the decedent which reveals extensive medical information, such as the presence of any diseases or medications and any evidence of treatments received, regardless of whether that information pertained to the cause of death,” Justice Kay Hearn wrote for the majority.

“This is the type of information that would necessarily be contained in medical records when a person is alive. We decline to allow a person’s death to change the nature of the record into one subject to disclosure under the (Freedom of Information Act).”

However, the lone dissenting judge Costa Pleicones argued state law does not prohibit the release of autopsy findings. Pleicones wrote the law specifically requires an autopsy “be furnished upon request to any party to whom the cause of death is a material issue.”

Sumter Police stopped Jacobs in September 2010, saying he matched the description of a carjacking suspect. Police said Jacobs pulled a gun and fired at them. But The Item eventually received a copy of the autopsy from the State Law Enforcement Division that showed Jacobs did not have gun residue on his body (meaning he likely never fired) and was shot in the back.

Police later arrested another man and charged him in the carjacking case. The officer was not charged with wrongdoing in the case.