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Disclosure of Medical and Postmortem Law Enforcement Records

This page discusses the disclosure of medical, postmortem, and autopsy records in the possession of police and sheriff departments in Washington State.

It is part of MRSC's Law Enforcement Records Tool Kit, created in partnership with the State Auditor's Center for Government Innovation.

Always consult with your legal counsel if you are unsure whether a record or certain information within the record is exempt or prohibited from disclosure.

Medical Records

Disclosure of medical information obtained from a healthcare provider is prohibited without the patient’s written consent under chapter 70.02 RCW, incorporated into the PRA by RCW 42.56.360(2). Medical records do not lose their confidentiality just because a law enforcement agency has possession of the documents.

For More Information: The Washington State Hospital Association has developed a guide for law enforcement agencies regarding access to healthcare provider records: Hospital and Law Enforcement Guide to Health Care Related Disclosure (2017).

However, if the medical information is provided to law enforcement by another source besides the healthcare provider, chapter 70.02 RCW does not apply. But the information may still be exempt if it is part of an investigative file and nondisclosure is essential to protect an individual’s right to privacy under RCW 42.56.240(1).

For an example of possible redactions related to medical records disclosed by an individual (as opposed to a healthcare provider), see MRSC's sample arrest report.

Autopsy or Postmortem Records

RCW 68.50.105 prohibits the disclosure of autopsy or postmortem records in most instances. This includes autopsy photos and suicide notes included as part of the autopsy or postmortem report. See Reid v. Pierce County (1998); Comaroto v. Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office (2002).

Certain people or agencies can obtain autopsy or postmortem records:

  • Personal representatives of the deceased,
  • Any family member of the deceased,
  • The attending physician or advanced registered nurse practitioner,
  • The prosecuting attorney or law enforcement agencies having jurisdiction,
  • Public health officials,
  • The Department of Labor and Industries, in the event of an industrial death where the cause of death is unknown (RCW 68.50.103), and
  • The secretary of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (RCW 74.13.640)

Last Modified: December 30, 2022