Was the Marin County Sheriff’s spokesman following the law in releasing most of the factual details about Robin Williams’ death in a press conference last week? Was he acting appropriately in doing so? Why is it important for the public to get as many of the facts as possible?
Here is how that spokesman, Lt. Keith Boyd, explained his disclosures when asked by a reporter.
The Sheriff’s Office understands how the release of the kind of information you heard yesterday may be viewed as disturbing by some, and as unnecessary by others, but under California law, all that information is considered “public information” and we are precluded from denying access to it. These kinds of cases, whether they garner national attention or not, are very difficult for everyone involved. Frankly, it would have been our personal preference to withhold a lot of what we disclosed to the press yesterday, but the California Public Records Act does not give us that kind of latitude . . . To date, we have received a staggering number of formal Public Act requests (for the 911 dispatch recordings) and we are required by law to make those disclosures within 10-days. While we continue working with our County Counsel’s Office to determine if there might be an exemption in the Public Records Act that would allow us to withhold those tapes, my past experience has been that there is not and we will once again have to do what the law requires us to do.
The obligation to release 911 dispatch tapes has not been addressed by a court so far, but the law on coroner’s reports is clearer. In California all information held by state or local government agencies relevant to their activity is presumed to be public unless some specific exemption provides to the contrary. There’s no exemption for coroner’s records per se, although one case has held that if the coroner is working on a suspected homicide, the report can be withheld as part of a criminal investigation. That was not the case here; apparently no suspicion of homicide ever arose.
Coroners’ findings are very much a matter of legitimate public interest, to determine if an otherwise unexplained death resulted from a crime or accident of some kind. In the days before modern forensic science, a cause of death determination was often if not always determined by a coroner’s jury in a public inquest proceeding. Inquests are quite rare now, but can be particularly useful to clear the air in controversial deaths such as police shootings.
Coroners are not required to provide details by press conference, but if this event was triggering a heavy volume of public records requests, the authorities had the discretion to minimize the disclosure burden by informing everyone at once and anticipating as many questions as possible. While some may have found the disclosed details on some people’s mourning of Mr. Williams’ passing may have been jarring, keeping what was known under wraps would have added needless speculation if not suspicion to the general shock.