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Medical Examiner says public records changes will increase transparency; open government advocates disagree 

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Washoe County Medical Examiner Laura Knight said it isn’t clear whether autopsy reports and records from her office are public, confidential or something in between because of differences between state law and Washoe County code. She shared the challenges on Tuesday with the Board of County Commissioners. 

“Our county code is in slight conflict with our state laws,” Knight said. “It’s kind of complicated. There’s not one clear law. What we have asked in drafting this [bill draft request] is that there be one unified approach.” 

Knight said in the past, coroners and medical examiners in Nevada relied on an attorney general opinion from 1980 to keep autopsy reports more confidential. A 2020 Nevada Supreme Court decision, however, found that autopsy reports and some other medical examiner records are public records under Nevada’s Public Records Act (NRPA). Knight said that’s now the guidance her office works under, despite the Washoe County website claiming such records are not considered public.

“Basically when we have a request for an autopsy report that does not fall under the next of kin … we go to legal and ask, ‘Under the Supreme Court decision is there a significant public interest … in releasing this autopsy report?’” she said.

Knight said the conflict between county code and state law needs to be resolved, and state law is “the bigger hurdle.” She said she worked with the Clark County Coroner to draft the bill request. 

The portions of Washoe County’s code that apply to the medical examiner were last updated effective July 1, 2007, two weeks after legislative updates to NRPA were signed into law by the governor and three months before the state’s updates took effect. 

Washoe’s code states medical investigative reports and autopsy reports should remain confidential, except for access granted to some individuals, such as next of kin or law enforcement. Nevada law, however, doesn’t provide any exemption for medical examiners’ reports if confidential personal identifying information can be redacted.

Based on Knight’s recounting, Washoe County code has been out of sync with state law for nearly two decades. 

“We’re actually asking for more transparency,” Knight said. “We’re asking to be able to give out autopsy reports more often.”

She added that clarity in state law would eliminate the need for her office and the district attorney to determine what is or is not in the public interest to release.

Nevada Open Government Coalition President Michelle Rindels said the way the proposal is written does not increase transparency.

“While we appreciate the coroner’s stated intent to increase transparency and release more autopsy reports to the public, the devil is in the details, and we will be closely watching this proposal to ensure it doesn’t end up doing the opposite and making it harder for everyday Nevadans to exercise their right to access these public records,” she said. “Washoe County staff themselves complain about the hassle of running requests past legal counsel, but the burden is far greater for private citizens, who don’t have in-house counsel, if they are forced to fight for taxpayer-funded records to which they’re entitled.”

Commissioners praised Knight for putting together a bill draft request (BDR) that they said would increase transparency. 

Commissioner Clara Andriola said she also sees the BDR as a positive that would save the county money by reducing analysis by the district attorney’s office. She asked for the BDR to be prioritized for the 2025 legislative session. 

What Knight and the commissioners didn’t address was a portion of the proposed BDR that would bar access to autopsy reports in the manner of death was undetermined and the case was still being investigated by law enforcement or making its way through criminal courts.

In rural counties where the sheriff is also the coroner, it could potentially create a scenario where details of in-custody deaths are kept from public view.

“Autopsy reports help the community understand unexplained deaths in our community and their prompt release helps keep officials honest,” Rindells said. “Releasing more detail should be the default and broad provisions of blanket secrecy that could last for years or decades are unacceptable.”

Criminal attorney Orrin Johnson has a different perspective, and said the proposed BDR “strikes a reasonable balance between the public’s right to know and a family’s right to keep the gorier/disturbing/embarrassing details to themselves.”

“I also have to concede there is significant value in keeping certain details of ongoing homicide investigations confidential, sometimes even for a long time,” he added. “A lot of murders have been solved because the murderer couldn’t keep his mouth shut about details that had not been released, even sometimes years later.”  

Johnson added, however, that doesn’t mean the proposal is perfect. 

“I think there is room for improvement … in that a clear limiting definition to ‘ongoing investigation’ should be added,” he said. “In my mind, a cold case gathering dust on a shelf is hardly an ‘ongoing investigation,’ and that’s where journalists can do the most good, and where police are the most reluctant to cooperate.”

Commissioners unanimously approved a motion to move forward with BDRs on medical examiner, voter signature public records and a new Truckee River license plate.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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