Court of Appeal:
Exemption Under Public Records Act for Medical Files Where Disclosure Would Create ‘Unwarranted Invasion of Personal Privacy’ Does Not Apply Where Parents Seek Independent Forensic Report on Son’s Death
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Div. Three of the First District Court of Appeal held yesterday that a trial judge erred in declining to release the full autopsy report prepared by a coroner’s office for use by an independent certified forensic pathologist in attempting to determine whether a police officer who supposedly hanged himself actually committed suicide, as officially declared, or was murdered.
“[T]he public interest in disclosing the Investigation Report—which will facilitate a forensic review that directly bears on how well the Coroner’s Office has performed its duties—outweighs any individual privacy interest,” Presiding Justice Alison M. Tucher wrote.
The independent investigation is sought by the parents of the decedent, Munir Edais, a member of the Los Gatos Police Department. He died in the early morning hours of Jan. 21, 2020; on Jan. 18, he accused his wife of committing adultery and told her he would seek a divorce.
It was the wife who phoned the Daly City police to report the supposed suicide in their apartment. A recording reveals that in the background was whispering by another person.
According to a website urging signatures on a petition calling for a meaningful probe by Daly City authorities:
“The Edais family as well as professional audio forensics listened to the 911 call and were able to confirm a male voice in close proximity to Eman; coaching her on what to say and do. The police officers didn’t do anything with that information nor open a real investigation. In bedroom 2 of Munir’s apartment, was a nanny cam placed by Munir. This was not collected by Daly City police officers at the time of Munir’s death. Why was the nanny cam not collected?”
(According to the website, 31,152 signatures have been collected.)
In opposing the request under the California Public Records Act for the full, unredacted autopsy report, the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office argued that Government Code §7927.700, which exempts from disclosure “personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” requires nondisclosure. Disagreeing, Tucher said:
“Here, the gravity of the governmental task looms large, as the requested documents will support (or fail to) the government’s determination that Munir was not a homicide victim, but a suicide. The public interest in correctly distinguishing suicide from homicide is patent. It justifies even compromising the confidentiality of a patient’s medical records.”
She went on to say:
“As against this weighty public interest in disclosure, the individual privacy interests are more elusive. Petitioners assert that Munir, because he is dead, no longer has privacy interests to protect. Respondents counter that the privacy of a decedent’s family must also weigh in the balance. In the abstract, respondents may be right….
“But respondents’ argument ignores important facts. First, members of Munir’s own family (his parents, supported by his sister) are the ones seeking these documents. It cannot be the role of the Coroner’s Office to protect these family members from themselves. In assessing the weight of the family members’ privacy interest, we consider it significant that three members of Munir’s family believe their privacy interest pales in comparison to their interest in having these documents disclosed.”
Tucher noted that the widow did not provide the Coroner’s Office with written authorization to release the full report but, on the other hand, did not actively oppose the disclosure. She said the parents have rights “either behind or alongside the rights of a surviving spouse,” adding:
“Here, where the surviving spouse has made no affirmative request for privacy, where there is no evidence that disclosure will lead to public spectacle, and where other close family members uniformly favor disclosure and distrust the motives of the surviving spouse in failing to agree, we assess the private interest in nondisclosure as somewhat attenuated.”
The presiding justice continued:
“A second important fact in assessing the weight of the individual privacy interest is that the documents we discuss here are not photographs and videos of the deceased, but technical documents such as coroner’s notes and observations recorded in words and numbers. State law recognizes the extreme sensitivity of death-scene and autopsy photographs of the deceased, often protecting these images from disclosure…but we know of no comparable statute protecting the other documents petitioners seek.”
The autopsy photographs had been provided.
For the same reasons §7927.700 does not bar disclosure, Tucher said, the “catchall” exemption, §7922.000—which applies where privacy interests outweigh public interest—is not as barrier to release being ordered, Tucher said.
The matter was remanded to the San Mateo Superior Court for consideration of requests for materials that had been sought in addition to the investigation report and for an award of attorney fees to the prevailing party under the Public Records Act.
The case is Edais v. Superior Court (Foucrault), 2023 S.O.S. 188.
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