Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Friday, September 9, 2005

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Allows Autopsy Report Sealed in Case of Ongoing Investigation

In In Re: Randy Buchanan, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has upheld a divided lower court, finding that a "county's Coroner is [not] required to disclose to the public under the Pennsylvania Coroner's Act..." the results of an autopsy if "an ongoing police criminal investigation of the homicide" exists. The Altoona Mirror had asked for access to the report pursuant to the state statute, and the trial court had found in the newspaper's favor, "denying the Commonwealth's petition for a permanent seal.... " The appellate court, however, reversed, holding that "`an autopsy report may remain sealed beyond the statutory period if the Commonwealth demonstrates that the release of the report would substantially hinder an ongoing criminal investigation.'"

According to the Supreme Court, "In interpreting Section 1251, the Superior Court panel majority noted that the provision contained no express exception for records connected with criminal investigations. The majority reasoned nevertheless that `we do not believe that our legislature intended to strip from the common pleas courts their inherent right to ensure that the release of information will not jeopardize either the privacy rights of individuals or ongoing criminal investigations.'"

Continuing with its consideration of the prior practice in the common law and the Court's own procedural rules, the Supreme Court states that "`upon a sufficient showing', a trial court may seal certain statements, documents, or other evidence from discovery or inspection at a point in a criminal proceeding well-beyond the investigative stage....Additionally, Rule 211, entitled "Sealing Search Warrant Affidavits," provides that a district attorney can request that a search warrant affidavit be sealed `upon good cause shown.'...

After rejecting the appellant's other arguments, the Court concludes that "the Commonwealth offered what amounted to generic evidence concerning how release of the autopsy results could impede the homicide investigation. Thus, Coroner Ross testified that autopsy reports generally contain details of the scene of the homicide, including where the body was located, the positioning of the body, who was last seen or reported as being seen with the victim, the clothing on the body, the condition of the scene and what determination the coroner was able to make....The panel majority noted that the trial court had failed to make specific findings of fact that would permit the Superior Court to determine whether release of Buchanan's autopsy report would actually substantially hinder or jeopardize the ongoing investigation....Upon remand, the trial court should determine whether the Commonwealth can establish that the release of the fact poses a threat...."

Read the entire opinion here.

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