Coroner Sheriff Conflict of Interest

It seems that the news covers more frequent abuses of power, corruption and conflicts of interest within law enforcement and in posts held by elected or appointed officials. One state is trying to address this head on.

In California, 49 of the 58 counties have a coroner who is also an elected sheriff. Why is this a conflict of interest? Well, the coroner ultimately gets to decide the deceased’s cause of death. So, even if a forensic scientist claims that the person’s death resulted from a homicide, the sheriff-coroner can rule it as an accident or a suicide. This is an inherent conflict of interest, according to critics of the current status quo in California. In San Joaquin County, its chief forensic pathologist quit and his colleague, alleging that the Sheriff-Coroner had pressured him to change autopsy findings when his own police officers were involved.

In 2008, Daniel Lee Humphreys was being chased by California Highway patrol after speeding. He ended up crashing his motorcycle, and then he was shot with a Taser 31 times by an officer who caught up with him. Ultimately, he collapsed and then later died. His ex-wife has accused the sheriff’s office of withholding evidence concerning their use of the Taser, and ultimately, Mr. Humphrey’s death was ruled an accident. This is not an isolated incident. Recently, an audit of the coroner’s office in San Joaquin County revealed at least 4 deaths in 2016 which involved law enforcement officers. The sheriff overruled the findings of all the county pathologists. There is no way to guarantee that a sheriff can fairly investigate officer-involved deaths if they serve both as a sheriff and the coroner.

The two doctors who quit allege that the sheriff not only pressured them to change their conclusions but also that he routinely interfered in various investigations of people who had died during their encounters with law enforcement officers. The sheriff is accused of preventing the doctors from visiting crime scenes and failed to notify them of cases they were obliged to investigate. He also is accused of canceling forensic tests without their knowledge or consent. The office has also been the subject of criticism that their deputy coroners are sent to crime scenes without sufficient training or knowledge, which could have resulted in mishandled investigations.

It was not only doctors who were dissatisfied with the sheriff/coroner issue in San Joaquin County. Deputy District Attorneys also brought the issue of meddling to the Sheriff, with one D.A. writing to the Sheriff in 2013 that a failure to bring the forensic pathologist on the crime scene can affect the prosecution of cases – referring to the stabbing murder of a woman in her own home, where her children were in and out of the house all day. The sheriff’s office failed to pass on the message that he was needed at the scene. The next day, due to the decomposition and subsequent refrigeration of the victim’s body, the doctor was unable to determine a good time of death – which significantly impeded the investigation and made it more difficult to ascertain who was present at the time of her murder.

The outcry has prompted the legislature to introduce a bill that would change the current structure, requiring some counties to replace the coroner with a medical examiner. This is the arrangement in San Diego and San Francisco. There, a doctor, certified in forensic pathology, independently examines the deaths – outside the reach of law enforcement. Officials in San Joaquin County took note, and unanimously voted to strip the sheriff of his duties as coroner. A medical examiner will be installed within the year.