Horry County administration oversteps in directing elected coroner

By The Myrtle Beach Sun News Editorial Board

The Horry County administration sometimes acts as though the government belongs to the executive branch, not the people. That may be in part because the elected chairman and members of the Horry County Council hire the administrator, pay him well, and — this much is to the council’s credit — stay out of his way in day-to-day matters.

The next council chairman, Johnny Gardner, winner of the June 11 primary and unopposed in the November general election, campaigned on a pledge of transparency. If he stands by his campaign promises, Gardner will have some issues to deal with when he takes office in January.

The administration’s latest effrontery is a directive to Horry County Coroner Robert Edge to no longer release toxicology reports to the public. Edge, a veteran elected office holder from a well-known political family, has had no problem providing toxicology reports. He clearly feels the reports should be released if there’s a public interest.

When The Sun News sought the toxicology report on a 20-year-old man who drowned in a ditch along U.S. 17 Bypass near a nightspot, the reporter was referred to county attorney Arrigo Carotti, who claims the toxicology report is “… a ‘medical record’ and thus confidential.” Carotti said, “We are adverse to being sued by releasing privileged information. That’s our dilemma.”

Carotti also maintains that disclosing the reports is simply against the law and not a sweeping change in policy. “That was an oversight, they shouldn’t have been provided.” The State Law Enforcement Division routinely releases toxicology reports when news reporters request them.

We have difficulty understanding the concern about the county being sued over the results of a toxicology report, which shows the presence of medications, alcohol or illegal substances in a person. Loved ones of deceased persons may not wish toxicology reports known, but as a practical matter, lawsuits are unlikely. The legal dilemma cited by Carotti apparently is his reading of the 2014 ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court that said autopsy reports are medical records and may not be disclosed to the general public.

The Supreme Court ruling itself is controversial in declaring a deceased person’s right to privacy, even when death is suspicious and considerable county and state resources are used to determine the cause. The court used “a wide-open definition of ‘medical record,’ ” according to an attorney general opinion on the 2014 Perry vs. Bullock case.

More to the point of a supposed dilemma, a 2016 attorney general opinion said coroners may disclose results of blood screenings for alcohol and drugs without violating a sweeping protection of health privacy. S.C. Coroners Association President Dennis Fowler cited three reasons not to release a report: toxicology is pending, investigation is ongoing, case pending in court. Those are specific, reasonable reasons for not making information public — the possibility of a lawsuit is not a good reason for withholding information related to deaths being investigated by coroners.

Coroners and in some jurisdictions medical examiners are all about determining unnatural causes of death, such as a 20-year-old man drowning in a shallow ditch. Horry County Coroner Edge should push back on the administration’s stunning audacity in issuing directives to an independently elected public official.