Thursday, February 5, 2009
Court: Coroner Reports Exempt Under Public Records Act
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Coroner and autopsy reports from suspected homicide deaths are exempt from disclosure under California’s Public Records Act, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Reasoning that the reports present a concrete and definite prospect of criminal law enforcement proceedings, the court rejected a former-California-attorney-turned-publisher’s request for records relating to a Sacramento woman whose bullet-riddled body was found in an open El Dorado County field in 1971.
Phillip Arthur Thompson was convicted in 2008 of the murder of Elizabeth Cloer after a 2003 analysis of DNA left at the scene tied him to the crime.
A news reporter who covered the proceedings—Kathryn J. Dixon, an attorney until she was disbarred in 1999 over a pattern of financial improprieties, dishonesty, false accusations and other moral turpitude—requested the complete coroner and autopsy reports prior to trial in anticipation of writing a book, but the El Dorado County sheriff-coroner denied the request.
Dixon then sought a writ of mandate compelling the reports’ release, but El Dorado Superior Court Judge Daniel B. Proud denied the petition after an in camera review of the reports.
Proud ruled not only that the reports were exempt under Government Code Sec. 6254(f) as “investigatory files of a local agency for law enforcement purposes which involve a definite prospect of criminal law enforcement,” but that the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure under Sec. 6255.
On appeal, Dixon argued that the Sec. 6254(f) exemption did not legally extend to coroner and autopsy reports and maintained that Proud’s ruling unconstitutionally restricted freedom of the press, but Justice Rodney Davis swept aside both arguments.
“[O]fficially inquiring into and determining the circumstances, manner and cause of a criminally-related death is certainly part of law enforcement investigation,” he commented.
Davis added that any concern that the exemption’s language was overbroad was addressed by appellate court opinions that construed it to apply only when there is “a concrete and definite prospect” of “criminal law enforcement proceedings,” and wrote that Sec. 6254(f) shielded disclosure of the reports Dixon sought, even though they were indisputably public records.
The justice then similarly rebuffed Dixon’s claims that Proud’s decision unconstitutionally restricted her right to freedom of the press as a journalist.
“It is irrelevant that the party requesting the public records is a newspaper or other form of media, because it is well established that the media has no greater right of access to public records than the general public,” he said.
Dixon could not be reached for comment.
In a 2006 opinion upholding the 1997 armed robbery conviction of Dixon’s former client Darris Young, who argued that Dixon’s conduct leading to her disbarment one month after his conviction rendered her counsel ineffective, Senior Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Noonan described Dixon as “not a college student or cobbler…[but] a fully licensed lawyer with her head full of fantasies.”
One of Dixon’s most notorious assertions arose in a federal suit she filed in the mid-1990s, which alleged that a number of public officials in the region were covering up an East Bay pedophile ring.
Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland and Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye joined Davis in his opinion.
The case is Dixon v. Superior Court (Neves), C058858.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company