Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Ind. Decisions - Public access to death certificates still somewhat muddy?
Attorney Cara Wieneke, a contributor to the ILB who practices criminal and appellate law in central Indiana, has sent the ILB this memo recounting her recent experience in trying to obtain a death certificate:
In October 2014, our Supreme Court decided Evansville Courier & Press v. Vanderburgh County Health Department, 17 N.E.3d 922 (Ind. 2014), which held that death certificates filed with county health departments are public records under APRA to which the departments must provide public access. For reasons explained fully in the Court’s opinion, this holding applied to county health departments but not to the Indiana State Department of Health.
A review of the State Department of Health’s information on death certificates, however, does not inform the reader of the Court’s decision that death certificates are now public records that are available for viewing in county health departments. In fact, the State Department’s website informs the reader that death certificates are NOT considered public records:You may contact the local health department in the county where the event occurred to obtain information on their walk up service hours, method of acceptable payment, and if they accept order via the internet. All requests require proper identification and proof of relationship to the person whose record is being requested. Methods of payment and fees may vary. See requirements.See http://www.in.gov/isdh/20444.htm (emphasis added).
It seems at least one county health department is unaware of the Supreme Court’s decision as well. Earlier this week I traveled to the Wells County Health Department to obtain a death certificate for use as evidence in court. I reviewed the health department’s website information on vital records and noted that, like the State Department of Health, the information on the Wells County Health Department’s website also implies that one must prove a relationship to the deceased before she can view or obtain a copy of the death certificate. See https://www.wellscounty.org/vital-records/.
Armed with a copy of the deceased’s obituary, which I found online via a Google search, I requested a certified copy of the death certificate. The vital records registrar I spoke with refused to provide me with the certificate at first, claiming that I had to prove my relationship with the deceased.
After explaining to her that I was an attorney and needed a certified copy of the certificate for use in court, she asked to see a court order or some other document that permitted me to obtain a copy of the certificate. Eventually she agreed to give me a copy if I could provide at least two forms of identification proving that I was an attorney in Indiana.
Finally, after filling out an application form that required me to list my relationship with the deceased, I was given a copy of the certificate. But if I had not been able to provide proof that I was a lawyer, I would not have been allowed to view records that have clearly been deemed public by our Supreme Court.