A bill set for action early next year in the state Senate would require coroners to release autopsy reports related to the cause of death in cases such as that of Tucker Hipps, the Clemson student who died during a fraternity run in September.
State Sen. Larry Martin said he pre-filed the bill in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that came out after the legislative session ended last summer that found that autopsy reports are "medical records" and thus exempt from disclosure under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Oconee County Coroner Karl Addis cited the ruling in refusing to release autopsy reports, including a toxicology report, on Hipps, who died of head injuries after falling from a bridge across Lake Hartwell.
Martin's bill specifies that any exemption in the release of autopsy materials "does not apply to reports of the cause of death of a person examined by autopsy."
It also adds to the list of materials specifically made public information, "reports prepared by, at the request of, used by, or in the possession of, a coroner as to the cause of death of a person examined by autopsy."
Martin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that would include a toxicology test that could shed light on the cause of death in Hipps' case.
The Pickens Republican didn't have Hipps in mind specifically in filing the bill but was thinking more generally of cases in which law enforcement officers are involved in the deaths of suspects.
"If that information is not timely released, as we saw in Ferguson and other parts of the country, you're only asking at trouble," he said.
The Supreme Court in July upheld a Circuit Court ruling in Sumter County that agreed with the coroner there that autopsy reports requested by a reporter for The Item were shielded from disclosure under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The newspaper's attorney cited a previous case in which death certificates were found to not be medical records and were subject to the open records law.
The majority opinion on the Supreme Court stated that autopsy reports are broader in scope than a death certificate and they would fall under the common definition of medical records.
Justice Costa M. Pleicones issued a dissenting opinion, asserting that the public release of autopsy reports is clearly provided for in the state's open records law and that coroners would have the right to redact any medical information that's not pertinent to the cause of death before releasing the reports.
Martin said his intention with the bill is to require the release only of information related to the cause of death.
"If a person was taking some sort of arthritis drug or a drug for mental health that had nothing to do with the person being shot by a police officer, that doesn't need to be released," he said. "But the overall concern is with the underlying injuries resulting in the death, whatever that might be."