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California's Sheriff Coroner Offices Have a Glaring Conflict of Interest

Currently, sheriffs—who have an official, vested interest in officer-involved shootings—make the final cause-of-death determinations.

One of the few things I remember from college Psychology 101 was Maslow's pyramid-shaped "Hierarchy of Needs." If we're destitute, we spend all our time trying to meet our physiological needs for food and shelter. With those needs met, we then worry about safety. After feeling safe, we move up the pyramid toward the narrower goals of love and belonging, esteem and then self-actualization. Bottom line: You're not going to spend much time worrying about lofty goals when you're scrounging your next meal in a war zone.

In similar (but less academic) fashion, I've developed the Greenhut "Hierarchy of Priorities" to help us work through the complex world of political priorities. As a libertarian, I'm always worried about government spending and taxation. But that's not the only thing advocates for limited government should care about. I put spending/taxation at the bottom of my pyramid because it's a no-brainer. It takes such little brain that even most Republican officials get it right most of the time.

But what happens after that? I'd argue that one of the higher political values involves civil liberties—i.e., the right to due process, and protection against unwarranted searches and seizures. Yes, our fundamental rights to life, liberty and property and protection against government abuse are a higher concern than saving a few bucks on the tax bill.

This brings me to Senate Bill 1303 by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento). The measure would force large California counties—those with at least 500,000 people and are not "charter" counties—to create an office of medical examiner to investigate deaths. That touches at least seven counties (Contra Costa, Kern Riverside, San Joaquin, Sonoma and Stanislaus). California is one of only three states that allows counties to use a sheriff-coroner system, whereby elected sheriffs oversee law enforcement and death examinations. Forty-nine of California's 58 counties use this system. The bill will be taken up when the Legislature returns on Monday.

This might sound like some technical matter, but it touches on those fundamental civil-liberties concerns. The current system is an outrageous conflict of interest. "Ensuring that autopsies are done in an ethical and equitable manner is essential in ensuring confidence in our criminal-justice system," explained Pan. "These autopsies are often the basis for criminal charges and it is imperative that the public gains the necessary facts to determine fault and deliver justice."

Currently, sheriffs—who have an official, vested interest in these cases, especially regarding officer-involved shootings—make the final cause-of-death determinations.

A scandal in San Joaquin County illustrates the problem. Last December, the county's chief medical examiner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, alleged that the county sheriff interfered with his investigations. As the Sacramento Bee put it, "Hands chopped off bodies; corpses left to deteriorate; doctors pressured to classify officer-involved deaths as accidents rather than homicides: San Joaquin's two forensic pathologists resigned in recent days over what they said was intolerable interference by Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore." The allegations are troubling.

The Assembly committee report said the allegations "call into question the integrity of the fundamental checks and balances of our criminal-justice system, as these medical determinations are often the basis for whether … charges filed." Indeed. Moore has denied the allegations. KQED paraphrased him saying that, "Determining cause of death—what killed a person—is the purview of the forensic pathologist...but he has the final say on determining the manner."

But just from a good policy standpoint, shouldn't a medical professional should be the one to make the final determination on the cause of death?

Sheriff-Coroner Moore failed to win re-election during the June primary, but the Pan bill makes a lot of sense. It's not just about San Joaquin County. A separate medical-examiner's office run by licensed physicians would reduce bias and political pressure. It would also guard against appearances of a conflict. Consider that allegations of compromised murder cases could lead the courts to revisit them, which could endanger the public.

Under the legislation, the medical examiner would be appointed by the county board of supervisors or chief executive officer, thus removing election pressure from this crucial office. Sheriffs and district attorneys run for office and don't want to anger powerful police unions and interest groups. That explains, in part, why police are rarely punished for on-the-job shootings. But the coroner is about providing scientific evidence about the cause of death. It should be sheltered from politics.

However, almost every Republican lawmaker voted against the Pan bill. The main arguments against it revolve around cost. (That's ironic given that the law-and-order crowd rarely minds spending more money on expanding prisons or hiking public-safety pensions.) The California State Association of Counties, which opposes the bill, pegs the state's reimbursable cost at more than $5 million. Of course, public costs are always an important concern, but those modest costs shouldn't stop the state from fixing a higher-level problem.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org. This column was first published in the Orange County Register.

Photo Credit: ERproductions Ltd Blend Images/Newscom

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  • loveconstitution1789||

    All deceased persons from a law enforcement shooting should be sent out of county, to reduce the risk of conflict of interest with the autopsy.

  • Ron||

    all counties talk to each other and cover each others backs since they occasional work together

  • Rich||

    "Hands chopped off bodies"

    "Looks like this one bled to death."

  • Hank Phillips||

    "Both hands missing. Clearly self-inflicted!"

  • sarcasmic||

    doctors pressured to classify officer-involved deaths as accidents rather than homicides

    You mean being beaten to death while in handcuffs, or being shot in the back a dozen times, doesn't count as an accidental death? Come on. The cops didn't actually mean for the guy to die. It was an accident.

  • Jerryskids||

    An investigation by the state Assembly said the allegations "call into question the integrity of the fundamental checks and balances of our criminal-justice system..."

    So the judges (most likely former prosecutors) rubber-stamping warrants and prosecutors working hand-in-hand with the cops to secure convictions and plea deals for years and years and years didn't raise any questions about the integrity of the fundamental checks and balances of the criminal "justice" system? The checks and balances only exist on paper and nobody's paid even lip service to the idea for as long as I've been around.

  • Jerryskids||

    Under the legislation, the medical examiner would be appointed by the county board of supervisors or chief executive officer, thus removing election pressure from this crucial office.

    Good thing the county board of supervisors or chief executive officers aren't elected and subject to a lot of political pressure from the cops and the prosecutors office. And I'm sure even if they were, most people wouldn't have their votes influenced by the arguments of all the influential people in the criminal justice system that one candidate is soft on crime, loves criminals, hates cops, wants to have child-raping maniacal drug kingpins roaming the streets of your neighborhood.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    I'm pretty sure they'll take care of this once they've solved the plastic straw threat.

  • Johnimo||

    Hoard, baby, hoard! I've got a collection of plastic straws to last a lifetime. They'll take away my plastic straws when they pry the last one from between my clenched teeth and stiff, dead lips!

  • Hank Phillips||

    So California wants its own Jim Crow coroners to rubber stamp First Responder™ killings into accidents/suicides the way Dixieland has always done to protect Ku-Klux™ killings from officious meddling. What could make it more obvious that the Democrat and Republican factions of the asset-forfeiture kleptocracy are identical down to two decimal places? A secret band of robbers and murderers, as Lysander Spooner so aptly summed it up.

  • Azathoth!!||

    We're talking about California, right? Corrupt police forces are the standard in communist countries, are they not? So why should we care? The sooner California collapses, the sooner it can be re-taken by the US.

  • Longtobefree||

    Be sure the invading force has orders NOT to capture San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, of Fresno. Just string the concertina wire, blow up the viaducts, and wait.

  • Johnimo||

    Whoa! Dude! You're talking about a fine Sci-Fi movie!

  • crufus||

    I see that San Joaquin County chief medical examiner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, is still upsetting the powers that be.

    He discovered that playing football is a major risk factor for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The NFL's billion dollar settlement made him a favorite of team owners.

    CTE has also been identified in ice hockey, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts, soccer, rugby, Australian rules football, baseball, and extreme sports.

  • Ron||

    how about anytime there is an officer involved shooting a citizen advisory group oversees all aspects of the investigation for any town of any size. sounds simpler to me

  • Duke of url||

    What are the chances that Dr. Omalu will be found dead, and the new M.E. will conclude that the cause of death was due to multiple self inflicted GSW to the head?

  • MarkJ-||

    National certification to be a law enforcement officer of any kind.

    An investigative and enforcement arm of the above.

    Treble the penalty for any crime committed by a person in a position of public trust.

    That will get us started.

  • Carlos Inconvenience||

    So the solution to government corruption is...more government?

  • Johnimo||

    You make an interesting statement. Couldn't we do some kind of coroner-morgue sharing between counties and municipalities to save money?

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