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House votes to restrict public access to autopsy photos

autopsy-620Arizona lawmakers want to exempt autopsy photos from the Arizona public records laws, so the House of Representatives approved a bill March 5 stating photos of the dead taken by county medical examiners cannot be released to the public or media without a judge’s approval.

Republican Rep. Karen Fann of Prescott sponsored HB2225, which states that photos, images, X-rays and recordings of human remains created by a medical examiner cannot be disclosed to the media or the public unless a Superior Court judge reviews and OKs the images first. The bill now heads to the Senate.

The measure was a response to a lawsuit brought last year by The Arizona Republic against Yavapai County over public documents and photographs surrounding the deaths of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Gannett Company, parent of The Republic and 12 News, sued the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office and the Yavapai County Medical Examiner in September for not releasing public records, including photos of the scene of the firefighters’ deaths. Gannett originally included a request for autopsy reports, though the company later backed off suing over those records. In the suit, the company specifically said it was not requesting photos from the autopsy or photos of human remains.

Gannett dropped the suit after Yavapai County officials said they had already given all records they had that fit the request.

Fann said her primary motivation for the bill was to ensure county medical examiners, who are like coroners, are not caught in the middle of a legal battle over their records. That happened to the Yavapai County medical examiner following the Yarnell Hill Fire.

The Arizona Newspaper Association supports the bill. Executive director Paula Casey said it will only cement in statute what is already the practice. She said the change codifies established case law on how to handle the dissemination of images taken by a medical examiner of dead bodies, and it won’t impede the public or media’s ability to access government records.

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