Question: Who Is Entitled To Get A Copy Of An Indiana Death Certificate?
Answer: Under Indiana Access To Public Records Act, The Public.
Indiana’s death record system begins with the death certificate, which contains data used to generate a variety of other records. A certificate of death is created pursuant to Indiana Code section 16–37–3–3(a) (Supp.2013), which provides:
The physician last in attendance upon the deceased or the person in charge of interment shall file a certificate of death or of stillbirth with the local health officer of the jurisdiction in which the death or stillbirth occurred. The local health officer shall retain a copy of the certificate of death.
It must include the decedent’s cause of death as certified by the attending physician or local health officer. Since January 1, 2011, the person filing the death certificate must use a state-created electronic database, the Indiana Death Registration System to file a certificate of death with the local health officer of the jurisdiction in which the death occurred. Once the death certificate is filed, the local health officer must use the information thereon to make a permanent record that does not include the cause of death. The permanent record, with the exception of the decedent’s Social Security number, shall be open to public inspection. The local health officer must also report the death to the Indiana State Health Department within 5 days. Finally, upon request of a qualifying individual, the local health officer shall provide a certification of birth, death, or stillbirth registration. The requesting party must demonstrate he has a direct interest in the matter and the certificate is necessary for the determination of personal or property rights or for compliance with state or federal law. Depending on the requesting party’s preference, the local health officer has the discretion to include or omit information concerning the cause of death.
On Appeal in this case, Appellants contend death certificates, including the cause of death information thereupon, are public records and therefore subject to APRA, which provides: “Any person may inspect and copy the public records of any public agency during the regular business hours of the agency.” APRA is intended to ensure Hoosiers have broad access to most government records:
A fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government is that government is the servant of the people and not their master. Accordingly, it is the public policy of the state that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees. Providing persons with the information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty it is to provide the information. This chapter shall be liberally construed to implement this policy and place the burden of proof for the nondisclosure of a public record on the public agency that would deny access to the record and not on the person seeking to inspect and copy the record.
Thus, we (the Indiana Supreme Court) apply a presumption in favor of disclosure, and the burden rests upon the Department to rebut that presumption. We see no reason to reach a different conclusion today. As we read the statute, the General Assembly has drawn a distinction between a certificate of death, which is intended to record cause of death data for use by health officials, and a certification of death registration, which is intended to authenticate the death for the purpose of property disposition. Under our holding today, a death certificate request with no showing of direct interest or necessity made to the state registrar would be denied while that same request would be granted by a local health officer. But we cannot say with certainty that this madness has no method. The General Assembly could have intended to distribute the administrative burden of record production among local health departments rather than letting it fall solely upon the State Health Department. Indeed, it has done likewise with regard to other public records; any citizen may obtain criminal records from a county clerk, but he may not obtain those same records from the State Police unless he meets certain statutory criteria. Accordingly, we decline the Department’s invitation to ignore the plain language of the statute and second-guess the legislature’s judgment. In our society, death is an intimate and personal matter. We recognize that public disclosure of the details of a decedent’s death may cause pain to his family and friends. We are also mindful of the importance of open and transparent government to the health of our body politic. Our General Assembly has considered these competing interests and, insofar as we can determine, concluded that the public interest outweighs the private. Indeed, in recent history, it has rejected three bills that would have exempted death certificates from APRA. Even if we wished to rebalance the scales, it is beyond our power to do so. 17 N.E.3d 922