Home>Articles>Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin Proposes Law to Authorize Withholding Autopsy Reports From Public Disclosure

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin Proposes Law to Authorize Withholding Autopsy Reports From Public Disclosure

Irwin’s proposed legislation is one of several bills that chip away at the state’s open records law introduced this year

By Matthew Keys, February 28, 2020 3:01 pm

A state lawmaker has proposed a measure that would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold autopsy reports from public disclosure.

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), introduced Assembly Bill 2372 earlier this month at the request of authorities in Ventura County who are attempting to keep autopsy reports of a 2018 mass shooting withheld from public disclosure.

Under the California Public Records Act, law enforcement officials may withhold public records — including autopsy reports — if they are related to ongoing criminal investigations. But once a criminal investigation is completed, the public has a general right of access to them, with few exceptions.

The records in question are connected to the November 7, 2018 shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill, a country western bar that was popular with college students from nearby Pepperdine University and other colleges.

Ian David Long, a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran, was identified as the gunman. Long fatally shot 11 people before turning the gun on himself. A sheriff’s deputy was also killed after responding to the bar.

In a statement released last week, Irwin said copies of the autopsy reports should not be disclosed publicly because “this information can be very traumatizing for the surviving family members of a crime victim.”

“The families of the Borderline shooting victims should not have to endure repeated trauma caused by conspiracy theorists and others who could have access to these highly personal reports,” Irwin said.

But records reviewed by USA Today found the majority of the requests made between the time of the shooting and the end of 2019 were for autopsy reports unrelated to the mass shooting.

Some of the requests filed for autopsy records related to the shooting have been made at the request of news organizations investigating the death of Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who was one of two law enforcement officers to respond to the bar moments after Long opened fire.

Investigators initially said Helus was killed by the gunman. Helus was shot more than five times by the gunman, but the sheriff’s department later revealed that sixth bullet fired by a California Highway Patrol officer went astray, struck Helus in a “vital organ” and claimed the deputy’s life.

Authorities said the revelation that Helus died from a bullet fired by police came from forensic crime analysis that showed the lead in the bullet that struck Helus matched materials in bullets fired the CHP officer, the New York Daily News reported.

A.B. 2732 was introduced with placeholder language ahead of a deadline for proposed measures to be submitted for the current legislative year. A complete proposal, currently being written by Ventura County officials, is expected to be filled in at a later time.

That proposal, USA Today reports, would allow family members, police and courts to receive copies of autopsy reports, but not members of the news media. Reporters who wanted access to the reports would be encouraged to get them from family members, the newspaper said.

Irwin’s proposed legislation is one of several bills that chip away at the state’s open records law introduced this year.

Last week, lawmakers introduced bills that would conceal the identity of underage crime victims in police reports and court proceedings; allow an office within the Department of Fish and Wildlife to withhold certain whistleblower complaints from public disclosure; and allow the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to exempt records related to “critical infrastructure” from disclosure.

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