A great deal of confusion exists in regard to the question of when is an autopsy required in California. The reality is that many people believe an autopsy is required far more often than dictated by California law. There are a number of factors that come into play when it comes to ascertaining when an autopsy is necessary for California.
When Is a California Coroner’s Office Involved in a Death?
Before addressing when an autopsy is performed in California, the coroner’s office necessarily must first be involved in a death. The coroner’s office is not involved in most deaths that occur in California. There are 25 categories of deaths in California that legally are reportable to the coroner’s office in the county in which a death occurred. These categories are:
1. No physician in attendance at the time of death (other individuals may be present)
2. Medical attendance less than 24 hours before death (hospital, doctor’s office, home)
3. Deceased person had not been seen by a physician within 20 days prior to death
4. Attending physician cannot state the cause of death
5. Known or suspected homicide
6. Known or suspected suicide
7. Suspicion of some other type of criminal act
8. Suspicion of self-induced or criminal abortion
9. Associated with alleged rape or sexual assault
10. Following an accident (occurring immediately or at some remote time)
11. Deaths arising from drowning, fire, hanging, exposure, acute alcoholism, drug addiction, gunshot, stabbing, cutting, starvation, strangulation, or aspiration
12. Accidental poisoning (food, chemical agent, drug, or therapeutic agent)
13. Occupational disease or hazard
14. Suspected contagious disease (constituting a public health hazard)
15. All deaths in operating rooms
16. All deaths where the patient has not fully recovered from an anesthetic
17. All deaths that occur within 24 hours of surgery
18. All deaths in which the patient was comatose the entire time attended by a physician
19. Unattended deaths (no one around at the time of death)
20. Deaths of unidentified persons
21. Deaths by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS
22. All deaths in prison and jails
23. All deaths of patients in state mental institutions
24. All deaths where there is no known next of kin
25. Fetal deaths of over 20 weeks of gestational age.
Specific Factors: When Is an Autopsy Required in California?
California law establishes four mandatory circumstances in which an autopsy must be performed by a county coroner:
- Suspicion of foul play
- Suspicion of infectious or contagious disease
- Infant death
- Inmate death
In addition, if the family if a deceased person requests an autopsy, a county coroner has the legal authority to perform one, even if that procedure would not be undertaken otherwise. The spouse of the deceased can request an autopsy. If there is no surviving spouse, a child or parent can make the request. The request for an autopsy made by a family member must be presented in writing.
If a family requests an autopsy that would not otherwise occur, limitations can be placed on the procedure by the family. For example, the family can restrict the autopsy to a specific part of the deceased person’s body.
In all other situations in which a death is reported to the coroner’s office, the coroner has the discretion to perform an autopsy if he or she believes the need for further investigation is necessary. If the coroner determines that an autopsy is not necessary for a situation in which the procedure is not required by law, the coroner can declare that a death was a “physician certified death.” This typically means that the coroner concludes, without the need for an autopsy, that the death occurred because of natural causes.
If the situation involves an autopsy that must be performed as a matter of law, like a case involving a suspicion of foul play, the coroner need not obtain the family’s permission for an autopsy. On the other hand, if an autopsy is not required by law but the coroner desires to undertake the procedure at his or her discretion, the coroner needs to obtain permission from the deceased person’s family.
California is one of five states that permits a religious objection to an autopsy. A religious objection is not likely to stop a legally mandatory autopsy. However, it may prevent one that a coroner wants to pursue on a discretionary basis. California law established a Certificate of Religious Belief which a person can complete during his or her lifetime to set forth an objection to an autopsy after death.
The staff of the Los Angeles County Coroner can provide you with specific information about when an autopsy is required in California. The LA Coroner can be contacted at:
1104 North Mission Road
Los Angeles, California 90033