Schoeneweis v. Superior Court (12/1/2009)

December 8, 2009

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Death Certificates Are Not Subject to Public Disclosure Under Arizona Public Records Law; Autopsy Reports Must Be Viewed In Camera to Properly Weigh Privacy Concerns Against the Interests of Public Disclosure.

The Court of Appeals held that all of the documents at issue are public records.  The documents include (1) an autopsy report with photographs, (2) investigative records, and (3) a death certificate.  The documents constitute public records because they were created by public officers in furtherance of required official duties.

The probate court erred, however, by finding the death certificate subject to public disclosure.  Under A.R.S. § 36-324 and A.A.C. R9-19-405, only specified groups of persons with a “legal or other vital interest” are authorized to receive copies of death certificates.  Disclosure to the general public is not authorized.

The probate court also erred by failing to conduct an in camera review of the autopsy and investigative reports to properly weigh any privacy concerns against the public interest in disclosure.  The documents did not qualify for “medical records” confidentiality under A.R.S. § 12-2292 because they did not contain communications for purposes of patient diagnosis or treatment.  See A.R.S. § 12-2291(5) (defining “medical records”).  But the probate court could not effectively weigh the relevant public and private interests at issue, to determine whether to allow disclosure, without first reviewing the documents.

Presiding Judge Swann authored the opinion; Judges Downie and Gemmill concurred.