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House passes bill restricting coroners' release of information
A bill making its way through the state Legislature would restrict the public from information they should have a right to know, opponents say.
House Bill 297, which passed this week, would create the Release of Coroner and Medical Examiner Information Act. The bill is named after Noah Cornuet, a 16-year-old football player who lived in the district of sponsor Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland County, and who died during practice. Evankovich and the player's family say the details of his death were made available to the public too quickly after the autopsy.
Noah's Law would prohibit the release of the identity of a deceased person if it interfered with an investigation or if the identity of the the deceased or next of kin is unknown.
Coroners, including York County Coroner Pam Gay, have had concerns with the legislation for years. It’s been proposed before but stumbled.
“They’re telling us how to do our job when they’re not coroners," Gay said. "I certainly respect the family’s right to have that privacy, but there are times when we struggle over the decision to release that information.”
Gay, who said she’s been accused of releasing information before the family has been notified, says it's often social media or law enforcement that jumps the gun. In most instances, she said, coroners are already waiting to notify next of kin before releasing the cause and manner of death to the public, but in rare instances, when there is no known family, releasing information about the death is sometimes the only way to find survivors.
Additionally, she said, she wonders why the bill is only targeting coroners and medical examiners.
“If they’re going to require this of us, then what about law enforcement and what about the media?" Gay said. "I don’t think it’s fair to say this is required of the coroner if it’s also not required of law enforcement and the media. Where do we draw the line?”
A previous version of the bill mandated coroners wait 72 hours before releasing information. The version passed this week has struck out that clause, but Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association representatives say that's not enough.
In a letter sent to legislators ahead of Wednesday's vote, representatives say Pennsylvania's Right to Know laws and the Coroners Act already outline what legislators are trying to address in the bill without restricting the public's right to the information.
"We need to know the cause of death," said PNA attorney Melissa Melewsky. "Those are things that are relevant to the community. It's one of the reasons we know about the opioid epidemic."
Gay said the average coroner is as careful as possible with the information they choose to release to the media. Her worry is that any exceptions made to this rule could limit her ability to do her job and put her office at risk of legal action.
While the bill does have a provision exempting coroners and medical examiners from its requirements if there is a “public health emergency,” she says she’s not sure what would qualify and worries she could face civil or criminal action against her while trying to find survivors.
“What is the punishment going to be? Are they going to allow the families to sue us or allow the state to take some criminal action against us?” Gay said.
As the bill is written, there are no immediate consequences, but the PNA feels "broad language" in the bill could be interpreted by district attorneys to mean they have some power in prosecuting coroners who release any information about their decedents.
The bill has passed the Senate's local government committee on first consideration. Under Pennsylvania law, it must be approved twice more in caucus and by members on the Senate floor before heading to the governor's desk for a signature.