Sunshine Advisory Bulletin
A Bulletin on Iowa Open Meetings and Public Records Laws
By Attorney General Tom Miller -- December 2005
Deaths in a Community Can Raise Alarm
But Does the Public Have Access to Autopsy Reports?
A death in a community may be a matter of real public concern -- for example, people may wonder if the death resulted from a crime -- and sometimes people may wish to see autopsy reports. Are autopsy reports confidential? How is privacy protected for the family of the decedent? What can government officials release?
Iowa's Public Records Law (Iowa Code Ch. 22) weighs and balances the need for information, privacy interests, and legitimate law enforcement concerns. When a death occurs, the availability of an autopsy report under the Public Records Law depends primarily on the identity of the requester.
Iowa law provides this guidance for release of autopsy reports under Code sec. 22.7(41):
- Law Enforcement: Law enforcement agencies have the greatest access to medical information. Medical examiner records and reports, including autopsy reports, shall be released on request to a law enforcement agency that is investigating the death.
- Immediate Next of Kin: The decedent's immediate next of kin has conditional access to autopsy reports which shall be released on request, unless disclosure "would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual."
- General Public: The general public has no access to autopsy reports. However, information regarding the cause and manner of death is open and shall be released to the public, unless, like autopsy reports, disclosure of this information "would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual."
'Remember: Iowa's Public Records Law balances various interests in providing access to records about a death. Law enforcement has the greatest access to records. Release of autopsy reports to immediate next of kin and release of the cause and manner of death to the general public hinge on whether disclosure "would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual."
Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings may call the Iowa Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman Office -- toll-free at 888-IA-OMBUD (888-426-6283.)
"Sunshine Advisory" bulletins provide information on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws -- our "Sunshine Laws." The bulletins are a resource for public officials and citizens. Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.
Iowa Attorney General's Office: Hoover Building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319.
On the Web: www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org.