F15-01Posted on Sep 15, 2014 in Formal Opinions
Opinion Letter No. F15-01
September 15, 2014
The Garden Island Newspaper asked whether the Kauai Police Department (KPD) properly denied its request under Part II of the UIPA for access to toxicology reports concerning two individual motorists who died in motor vehicle accidents.
OIP concluded that the toxicology reports of the deceased motorists are required to be disclosed upon request, as no exception to disclosure under the UIPA applies.
Because toxicology results are incorporated into or attached to autopsy reports, OIP’s opinion letters concerning the public disclosure of autopsy reports and other records about deceased individuals are relevant. In an opinion in 1991, OIP determined that autopsy reports would not generally be protected from public disclosure by the UIPA’s “privacy” exception, section 92F-13(1), HRS, because deceased individuals do not have a recognizable privacy interest. OIP Op. Ltr. No. 91-32. In an opinion in 2003, OIP reconsidered whether an agency may withhold certain records concerning deceased individuals, and adopted a test for determining whether the privacy exception to disclosure applies for information about a deceased individual. OIP Op. Ltr. No. 03-19. The test addresses and balances the passage of time against the sensitivity of the information involved to determine how strong the remaining privacy interest is. Then, the privacy interest is weighed against the public interest in disclosure, as provided by section 92F-14, Hawaii Revised Statutes, so that the information is protected under the privacy exception when the privacy interest is found to be greater. OIP Op. Ltr. No. 03-19.
OIP applied this test in the present case and found that the public has a considerable interest in toxicology information about the presence and level of alcohol, drugs or other substances because the information in the toxicology reports sheds light on the coroner’s performance of his duty to investigate pursuant to section 841-3, HRS. OIP found that this public interest outweighs the reduced but still significant privacy interests of the deceased motorists. Thus, disclosure of the toxicology reports at issue would not constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the deceased motorists.
Additionally, OIP found that surviving family members of the deceased motorists do not have a significant privacy interest in information contained in the toxicology reports at issue. In the absence of a “significant” privacy interest, OIP need not perform the balancing test of section 92F-14(a), HRS, as long as there is at least a “scintilla” of public interest in the toxicology reports. OIP thus concluded that the toxicology reports’ disclosure would not constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the decedents’ families.