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August 21, 1972
Honorable Earl F. Angevine
Court House Annex
Mount Vernon, Washington 98273
Cite as: AGLO 1972 No. 65 (not official)
This is written in response to your recent letter requesting our opinion with regard to the obligation of a county coroner to disclose to the press or public certain information obtained by him in the investigation of a fatality resulting from a traffic accident.
Basically speaking, the answer to your question is dependent upon an application of the common-law rules pertaining to "public records." These rules were recently summarized by this office in an opinion dated July 31, 1972, to State Senator A. L. Rasmussen, copy enclosed, in which we said:
". . . The traditional test of what constitutes a 'public record' within the meaning of these rules is whether or not the particular document is one which the public agency having custody is required by law to maintain. See, e.g., State ex rel. Cook v. Reed, 36 Wash. 638, 79 Pac. 306 (1905). Records which meet this test must be maintained on an 'open for inspection' basis in the absence of a specific statute to the contrary ‑ subject only to a requirement that the persons asking to see them do so at a reasonable time and can demonstrate legitimate interest in the records to be inspected. However, the mere fact that certain records are maintained by a public agency does not make them public records, per se. As stated in this prior opinion, supra,
"'All records maintained by the various departments of government are not, however, public records. In denying that the appellant had a right of inspection of certain memoranda and records maintained by a [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] county treasurer at public expense but not by direction of statute, our court stated as follows:
"'"They were not public records open to inspection by the public, as a matter or right, unless they were such as the law required to be kept." State ex rel. Cook v. Reed, 36 Wash. 638, 640.
"'In State ex rel. Price v. Peterson, 198 Wash. 490, 497, the court, in discussing the right of inspection of records maintained by an administrator who was by statute required to keep records and reports only as the county commissioners directed, said:
"'"We do not think it follows that, because one is a public officer, all records and reports of such officer are public records, which the public is entitled to inspect."
"'Thus, where the legislature has not required that a public agency or department maintain certain records, and thereby denominated them public records, the availability for examination of such records is within the discretion of the administrative head of the particular department or agency. 51 O.A.G. 176 [[to B. J. McLean, State Representative on November 27, 1951]].' (Emphasis supplied.)"
From this resume it will be seen that if the information being sought is contained in some document in the custody of the coroner which he is required by law to maintain, then access to this record by any persons having a legitimate interest therein must be permitted in the absence of some statute providing otherwise as to the particular record in question. However, on the other hand, if the information in question is not contained in a "public record" as above defined, we would have to regard its release or nonrelease either to the press or other members of the public as legally being within the discretion of the coroner.
[[Orig. Op. Page 3]]
We trust the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.
Very truly yours,
FOR THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
Philip H. Austin
Deputy Attorney General