INQUESTS: CORONER'S AUTHORITY IN CASE OF TRAFFIC DEATH
Coroner may hold inquest in case of traffic death where there is reason to suspect that negligent homicide has been committed.
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December 10, 1953
Honorable Charles O. Carroll
County City Building
Seattle, Washington Cite as: AGO 53-55 No. 181
By letter dated November 27, 1953, you have requested the opinion of this office on the following question: May a coroner hold an inquest under RCW 36.24.020 upon a traffic death where there is reason to suspect that negligent homicide has been committed?
In our opinion the answer to this question is "Yes."
RCW 36.24.020, as amended by section 3, chapter 188, Laws of 1953, provides in relevant part:
"Any coroner, in his discretion, may hold an inquest if he suspects that the death of a person was unnatural, or violent, or resulted from unlawful means, or from suspicious circumstances, or was of such a nature as to indicate the possibility of death by the hand of the deceased or through the instrumentality of some other person: Provided, That, except under suspicious circumstances, no inquest shall be held following a traffic death."
[[Orig. Op. Page 2]]
"When information is given to any coroner concerning the body of any person, the cause of whose death is unknown, and there is reasonable ground to believe that death was caused by unlawful means at the hands of another, * * *"
The basic purpose of an inquest is to determine whether or not death was the result of a criminal act, so that punishment may follow if necessary. Thus the editor of the annotation in 48 A.L.R. 1209 says:
"The general purpose of an inquest or autopsy is to determine, when there has been a death from an unknown cause, by what means the person met his death. The conditions under which such inquest or autopsy should be held are prescribed by statute in most jurisdictions. Since the purpose of such a statute is to provide a method of discovering the guilty person, if the death was caused by a criminal act, it usually directs that an inquest shall be held when there is reason to suppose that a death has been caused by unlawful or violent means."
In the case of a traffic death, the proviso appended to RCW 36.24.020 states that there shall be no inquest unless "suspicious circumstances" exist. Although under the present law an inquest is discretionary with the coroner, violent or unnatural death is a subject for inquest; presumably the coroner will ordinarily investigate such deaths. A traffic accident is a violent and unnatural cause of death, but because of the frequency of this kind of occurrence the coroner has been relieved by the proviso of his discretionary duty in such cases, except where suspicious circumstances appear. The question then is: What is meant by the quoted phrase in the proviso?
We do not think that "suspicious circumstances" in the proviso has the same meaning as that phrase in the body of the statute. The latter is apparently intended to permit an inquest where the case may not fall within the specific terms of the grounds enumerated. While the enumerated grounds are virtually all-inclusive so that the use of the quoted phrase might be said to indicate an excess of precaution, it seems to describe an additional (if not cumulative) ground.
[[Orig. Op. Page 3]]
In the case of negligent homicide involving an automobile there is little question as to the physical means effecting death. But this in itself does not preclude an inquest. Death by gunshot is self-evident as to the physical means; but it may have been either suicide, accident, or murder.
As stated, the underlying purpose of an inquest is to determine whether or not death resulted from acriminal act. The statute authorizes inquest where unlawful means is suspected, or death through the instrumentality of some person other than the deceased. Negligent homicide by automobile is a criminal act, State v. Hull, 182 Wash. 681, 48 P. (2d) 225, producing death by unlawful means. We cannot believe that the legislature intended to forbid an inquest where a criminal act may have caused death merely because the act was done in a traffic situation.
From what has been said, it follows that the phrase "suspicious circumstances" in the proviso of RCW 36.24.020 means simply that an inquest may be held upon a traffic death where there is reason to suspect that it resulted from a criminal act, even though it may have been partly accidental as in negligent homicide. An inquest would also be permissible where it appeared that a traffic death was not accidental.
We conclude that a coroner may hold an inquest upon a traffic death where negligent homicide is suspected.
Very truly yours,
A. J. HUTTON, JR.
Assistant Attorney General