SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California moved a step closer Tuesday to requiring counties to split the offices of sheriff, coroner and medical examiner, which some believe could lead to objective investigations of deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
By default, state law places a county’s coroner or medical examiner’s office inside its sheriff’s department, though the law also allows a county board of supervisors to separate the two entities. Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco counties all have coroners that are independent from law enforcement. But in the vast majority of the state, including three of its five biggest counties — Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino — the office is part the sheriff’s department.
California is one of three states where the coroner and sheriff can be the same person. Activists call this a potential conflict of interest, particularly when a coroner is tasked with investigating a death at the hands of law enforcement.
One of the main impetuses behind the introduction of Assembly Bill 1608 was the 2020 death of Angelo Quinto, a 30-year-old Navy veteran living in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Antioch who died three days after an Antioch police officer knelt on his neck for five minutes.
The Contra Costa County coroner — part of the sheriff's department — investigated Quinto's death for eight months before ruling the death an accident and listing the cause of death as “excited delirium.”
“This legislation would ensure that death investigations are conducted objectively, reducing any perception that the investigative process could be influenced by other segments of the criminal justice system,” Assembly member Mike Gipson, a Democrat from Gardena, said in a statement when he introduced the legislation.
Contra Costa County separated the two offices after the death of Quinto. If AB 1608 passes and is signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, counties would be required to separate coroner's offices from sheriff's departments by Jan. 1, 2023.
“The time is now to put California in line with the rest of the country and to remove any influence of the sheriff from death investigations,” Gipson told the state Senate's public safety committee on Tuesday. “This legislation would not allow a county sheriff to oversee the coroner or to have any determination in the cause of death during an investigation.”
The California State Sheriff’s Association, California State Coroner’s Association and California State Association of Counties oppose Gipson's bill. They groups say the legislation would take away local control from county boards of supervisors and put financial burdens on counties — especially rural ones with fewer deaths to investigate — to maintain two offices.
In a statement, the California State Sheriff’s Association told the committee current law provides a number of robust checks and balances so that undue influence is not exerted by the sheriff’s office in death investigations.
The bill passed out of committee 4-1 on a party line vote and heads next to the full Senate.
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