Duties and recent advancements for coroners and deputy coroners

By Mark Whitmore
AAC Chief Legal Counsel

As far back as ancient Greece, people were selected to investigate deaths in the community. The term “Coroner” initially comes from antiquity, namely when the deceased was entrusted to the coronator in which the corpse was prepared according to custom. Ancient Rome likewise had coroners investigating deaths. It was recorded that the body of Julius Caesar was examined by a physician named Antisius, who declared that out of 23 wounds inflicted, the one that penetrated the thorax was the cause of death. The Justinian Code (529-533 A.D.) required the opinion of physicians in certain cases and is often credited as the origin of recognition of the correlation of law and medicine in effecting legal justice.

The formal office of “Coroner” originated in England around 1100-1200 A.D. During the time of Richard I, Richard the Lionheart. In September 1194, it was decreed by the “Articles of Eyre” to establish the office as the “keeper of the pleas of the Crown.” This role provided a local county official whose duty included protection of the financial interest and the interest of the Crown in criminal proceedings. They were appointed by the Crown to investigate violent, unexplained deaths and to make sure that any property left by the deceased was added to the treasure trove of the King of England. The Latin word for crown is “corona,” which is why the office became known as “Coroner.”

In England the office of Coroner was a necessary substitute, for if the sheriff is interested in a suit, or if he is of affinity with one of the parties to a suit, the coroner must execute and return the process of the courts of justice. This role was qualified in Chapter 24 of the Magna Carta in 1215, which states, “No sheriff, constable, coroner or bailiff shall hold pleas of our Crown.” The person who found a body from a death thought sudden or unnatural was required to raise the “hue and cry” and to notify the coroner. Coronial manuals written for sheriffs, bailiffs, justices of the peace, and coroners were published in the 16th and 17th centuries. Handbooks specifically written for coroners were distributed in England in the 18th century.

Determining the cause of deaths would also be important in the New World. It is believed that William Penn appointed one of the first coroners in the American colonies in 1682 after a dead body was found on a riverbank. This coroner system was used as the country grew, and coroners were elected in all the original 13 colonies. As the new states and territories developed, coroners were elected to be county officers, comparable to sheriffs, with whom they often traded places. Also, the coroner was instructed to investigate the facts concerning the death, proceeding in the same manner as was customary in England except that the property of the dead man was to be held in trust for the heirs.

Article 7, § 46, of the Arkansas Constitution, creates the elective office of coroners and directs the qualified electors of each county to elect one coroner. As per Amendment 95 of the Arkansas Constitution, coroners, along with seven other county elected offices, have four-year terms. (Justices of the peace are district officials who serve two-year terms.) Coroners have a litany of duties prescribed by Arkansas law. The County Lines readership and the public should briefly take time to learn of the some of these duties.

When a death is reported to the coroner, he or she shall investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of an individual and gather and review background information, including, but not limited to, medical information and any other information that may be helpful in determining the cause and manner of death. Ark. Code Ann. § 14-15-301. Coroners are tasked with the investigation of deaths occurring within the county 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days per year. Although the duties of the county coroner may be conducted intermittently, the office is a full-time position. At any time, the coroner is required to investigate deaths.

In Arkansas, coroners’ responsibilities are concurrent with and separate from sheriffs’ responsibilities. Ark. Code Ann. § 14-15-302(a). A coroner’s investigation does not include criminal investigation responsibilities. However, the coroner shall assist a law enforcement agency or the State Crime Laboratory upon request and shall be given access to death scenes to perform the duties set forth in this subchapter. Ark. Code Ann. § 14-15-302 provides that law enforcement officials must give the county coroner access to all scenes of deaths with respect to which the coroner is required to carry out an investigation pursuant to Ark. Code Ann. § 14-15-301. The Attorney General allowed that it is true that a coroner investigation does not include “criminal investigation responsibilities.” (See: Attorney General Opinion 1995-263.) However, the Attorney General construed this provision to mean, primarily, that the coroner is not responsible for determining the identities of persons who commit crimes resulting in death. In undertaking his investigation into the cause and manner of death, however, the coroner must satisfy himself or herself as to whether the death was the result of a crime. They act separately from and independently of the sheriff.

A coroner may issue subpoenas as necessary to secure pertinent medical or other records and testimony relevant to the determination of the cause and manner of death, as well as antemortem blood, urine, or other biological fluids or toxicological samples relevant to the determination of the cause and matter of death as provided by Ark. Code Ann. § 14-15-301 and 302. A physician, hospital, or other healthcare provider may make biological fluids or toxicological samples available to the coroner without an authorization, subpoena, or court order, or as directed by the subpoena of the coroner, law enforcement or prosecuting attorney. Additionally, Ark. Code Ann. § 14-15-301(c)(1) provides that a coroner or his or her deputy who has received instruction and has been deemed qualified by the State Crime Laboratory to take and handle toxicological samples from dead human bodies may do so for the purpose of determining the presence of chemical agents that may have contributed to the cause of death.

Coroners in Arkansas have extensive duties related to reports as well. Ark. Code Ann. § 14-15-302 (e)(1)(A) A preliminary written report of the coroner’s investigation shall be completed within five working days and shall include a pronouncement of death. If indicated, a subsequent report shall be completed. If the death occurred without medical attendance or was the result of a homicide, an accident, or a suicide, the preliminary written report shall include without limitation certain outlined information regarding the decedent. Coroners also have duties in reporting child maltreatment and adult maltreatment, respectively. (See Ark Code §12-18-401 and Ark Code §12-12-1707). As well, they have an obligation to report and certify deaths under Ark Code § 20-18-601.

To better ascertain and perform their duties under the law, coroners and their deputies have access to in-state training. Initially, over the years, training was conducted ad hoc by the Arkansas Coroners’ Association, the Arkansas Crime Lab, and other stakeholders such as Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA). However, funding for the training was limited and sporadic. Some training was funded by virtue of the Paul Cloverdale Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program. Then in 2013, the Arkansas Coroners’ Association in conjunction with several stakeholders sought — and the General Assembly passed — Act 551, Ark Code § 14-15-308. Act 551 established access and funding for in-state training for coroners and deputy coroners on a similar basis as the training available for county clerks and circuit clerks and their deputies. Ark Code § 14-15-308 directs that the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training (CLEST) in coordination with the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) establish a training curriculum for medicolegal death investigators, coroners and deputy coroners that consists of no less than 16 hours and no more than 40 hours of instruction. The law outlines the courses required in the curriculum. The commission is to certify a certificate of satisfactory completion of training. In 2019, the law was amended to direct certain training to be mandatory for all deputy coroners in Arkansas. A grace period for meeting the mandatory training requirements was provided due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A deputy coroner who does not comply with the law shall not continue employment or activity as a deputy coroner, including without limitation signing death certificates or assisting in death investigations.

The training has been a resounding success. Since 2014, there have been 16 ARMDI classes with a total attendance of 295. Also, there have been numerous other training programs including: six on Crime Scene Photography; two on Aquatic Drowning and Homicidal Death Investigations; and three on Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Investigations. Coroners and various stakeholders should be extremely proud of the advancement of the improved access and level of training of coroners and their deputies.

Coroners have made several other recent advancements. Until recently almost all records of coroners in Arkansas were paper documents. Records maintained exclusively in paper format have limited accessibility and usefulness. Several coroners in Arkansas did not have offices, and their records were extremely difficult to retrieve following changes in the office holder. Also, many Arkansans seek to make anatomical gifts of their organs and tissues upon death. However, the lack of timely notification of the death caused these needs to go unfulfilled. Cause of death is vital information. Coroners’ offices in the United States using and maintaining electronic records have many major positive attributes over those using only paper records. In 2014 the Electronic Records of Arkansas Vital Events (ERAVE) System was launched and enabled death certificate information to be submitted electronically.

Following that advent, many of the coroners in Arkansas joined an electronic record system called Medicolegal Death Investigation Log or MDI Log. This major advancement commenced in 2017 and was largely achieved over the past few years from many of the coroners embracing MDI Log. The Arkansas Coroners’ Association, ARORA, State Drug Director Kirk Lane, and the Crime Lab engaged coroners and deputies and, in essence, many of them responded positively to the need for an electronic records system. MDI Log also provides timely notice for purposes of organ and tissue donation, and an excellent means of creating electronic records for coroners’ investigations and reports and populating death certificates. Additionally, the use of electronic records is key to integrating vital data in the state, city, county, and federal databases about the cause of death, such as drug overdoses, public safety or public health issues, etc.

The data is used to track trends in overdose deaths throughout the state. A lot of dollars come from federal grants and other funding to affect these issues. Many of those grants are competitive for the states. Having current data allows Arkansas to be competitive with other states and gives a clear picture of exactly what Arkansas is dealing with. When these grant dollars are received, current data allows the state to plug them into areas where they are most needed to combat overdose deaths. It is important to have this data to show where we need improvement, as well as where we are achieving improvement. Grant-funding agencies require the state to report data and results. Being able to do so efficiently allows Arkansas to better access new grants that can be used to improve outcomes for Arkansans.

Effective March 1, 2022, the Arkansas Crime Lab began accepting body submissions from coroners or deputy coroner only in a uniform electronic format under the MDI Log, which was already used by many or most coroners in Arkansas. This has further solidified the use of electronic records by coroners in Arkansas. We should all appreciate the many benefits for use of an electronic records management system for reporting deaths in Arkansas. This will assure that all coroners in Arkansas will be on and using the uniform electronic system for body submissions to the crime lab.

Act 194 of 2017 was adopted, creating Ark. Code § 14-14-1212 as Arkansas law. This statute defines a “certified county coroner” and allows the county quorum court to adjust through the annual budget ordinance the annual salary of a certified county corner. This established a separate maximum annual salary for certified county coroners and authorizes annual salary adjustment. The quorum court of each county that has a certified county coroner is authorized to fix by ordinance the annual salary of a certified county coroner within the schedule of maximum salaries under § 14-14-1204.

By all accounts, the Arkansas Coroners’ Association has recently demonstrated to be a forward moving group. The Arkansas Coroners’ Association and its partners have been embracing their legal duties and role in society. Their leadership has greatly improved the access and level of in-state training. They have embraced the modern era with a uniform record keeping system. Arkansans should be mindful of long-standing important duties of coroners and their deputies, as well as their recent leaps forward.

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