56.8 F
Reno

Washoe County legislative bill proposal raises concern from open government advocates

Date:

Changes to Nevada’s public records law may be on the docket in 2025. Washoe County’s Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday will decide whether to use one of the county’s two bill draft requests to redefine what records from medical examiners or coroners are considered public—and when they may become public.

The changes, if pursued, would edit portions of Nevada Revised Statute Chapters 239 and 259, Nevada’s Public Records Act and laws relating to coroners. They were proposed by the Washoe County Medical Examiner’s office in response to a call for bill request ideas from county personnel. 

The first portion of the proposed changes would define what are considered public records as they pertain to death investigations. Final autopsies, examination reports, lab reports and toxicology reports would be considered public unless the manner of death is undetermined. In that case, the records would not be released until the investigation is closed by the coroner and law enforcement and no criminal court case related to the death is pending. 

The Nevada Supreme Court has expressly ruled that autopsies are public records.” -Michelle Rindels, Nevada Open Government Coalition

Any details in the death records not related to the cause and manner of death, along with confidential information, would also be redacted or separated from the records. The second portion of proposed changes would remove a host of medical examiner or coroner materials from being considered public records. The suggested provision would apply to: 

“Photographs, audio and video recordings, radiographs, third party medical records, chain of custody documents, fingerprints, identification documents, biological specimens, histology slides, incomplete or draft reports, dictations, diagrams, third party materials obtained by subpoena pursuant to NRS 259.050(4), materials for which the coroner is not the custodian of record, and any other materials or documents included in the coroner’s death investigation.”

These materials would only be released under court order, for government purposes, or for scientific or educational research. 

In Washoe and Clark counties, the proposed changes would only affect records for the medical examiner or coroner, which are their own offices. In some of Nevada’s rural counties, the sheriff is the ex-officio coroner, increasing the power of local law enforcement agencies to withhold public records related to deaths in their communities. 

Differing opinions on Nevada’s public records law

If one were to read the frequently asked questions section of Washoe County’s Medical Examiner webpages, it may seem that the proposed changes to NRS 239 and 259 would increase access to public records. In large red letters at the top of the page, it states, “Autopsy and examination reports are not considered to be public records in the vast majority of cases per a recent Nevada Supreme Court decision.”

Nevada Open Government Coalition President Michelle Rindels said it’s just the opposite. 

“The Nevada Supreme Court has expressly ruled that autopsies are public records,” she said. “Withholding findings of coroner investigations should be done in only the most narrowly tailored of circumstances, and the burden should be on the coroner to prove an exceptional circumstance exists, not on the public to guess what might be missing from the public record.”  

Nevada’s Supreme Court in 2020 ruled that autopsy reports, even in the case of juveniles, are public records but that private or confidential medical information can be redacted. In that case, the Las Vegas Review-Journal sued the Clark County Coroner’s office for refusing to release autopsy records and reports for youths involved with the Clark County Department of Child and Family Services. 

The Review-Journal was investigating the care of children by guardians in foster care or who’d had interactions with child protective services before their deaths. One such case was a 3-month-old who was found in what North Las Vegas police called “deplorable” conditions and died a month later while in foster care.

Rindels said cases such as those in Clark County are why medical examiner reports should be public. 

“Coroners serve as an invaluable source of neutral and scientific information about deaths in our community,” she said. “Even when their conclusions are uncomfortable, the public has a right to know them and use their findings to inform public conversations about policy solutions to untimely death.

“This information must be as broadly, evenly and promptly available as possible to empower the public to hold accountable the leaders and agencies charged with responding to the underlying causes and to ensure that course corrections can be implemented in the most timely manner possible,” she added.

The Review-Journal’s attorney Maggie McLetchie, in 2020 while discussing the Supreme Court’s ruling, told a reporter at the Las Vegas paper that “autopsies have a strong public interest element.”

“Autopsy reports answer questions about deaths such as officer-involved shootings, crimes, public health issues and product safety,” she said. “This kind of transparency is exactly what the NPRA was designed to advance.”

Washoe County commissioners will discuss the BDR proposals on Tuesday, April 23, at 10 a.m. Other BDR proposals to be considered include removing the requirement for the county to publish receipts and expenses in the local newspaper; prohibiting voter signatures from being released as public records; creating a special Truckee River license plate; and updating annexation laws for counties with fewer than 700,000 residents. 

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.

TRENDING

RENO EVENTS

MORE RENO NEWS

Hammering home the point: Two meetings this week again discuss housing crisis, increasing homelessness

Local elected officials have been hearing similar presentations for years, with the data presented continually painting an increasingly dire picture of housing in the Truckee Meadows and across the state.