Dear Ms. Sforza:
This letter is in response to your October 11, 2018, request on behalf of The Orange County Register/Southern California News Group for a spreadsheet with death data for children aged 0 to 18, from 2000 to the present, containing information sorted into various CME fields. This follows Humboldt County’s initial response dated October 19, 2018.
As explained in more detail below, Humboldt County does not have a spreadsheet containing the information you seek, nor does it have the ability to electronically search, extract or compile any data it does have into such a spreadsheet. This is because the County maintains files containing all or a portion of such data either in paper form, or in non-searchable/manipulatable electronic formats.
The alternative would be for County staff to locate, review, redact and then provide you with the records it does have. However, such an endeavor would not only be unduly burdensome but would also likely be of little use once all confidential information was removed/redacted pursuant to various applicable laws.
1. Humboldt County does not maintain death data in the format you have requested and providing such information would require the County to create an entirely new record – which is not required under the Public Records Act.
To the extent it exists, the information you seek would be contained in Humboldt County Coroner’s reports and associated toxicology, autopsy, accident reports and death certificates (collectively “reports”). Each of these reports is stored differently, depending on the year in which it was created and its type. For the years 2000 through 2014, all reports are maintained in paper only.
The Sheriff’s Office assumed responsibility for the Coroner’s Office in 2015. From 2015 through the present, some reports are kept in the Rural Information Management System (RIMS) and others are maintained in paper file only. Neither the documents stored in RIMS, nor the paper files, are electronically searchable or sortable by the age of the decedent or by your CME terms.
As such, the only way for the County to provide a spreadsheet with the data you seek would be to have staff locate and read each of the reports for the relevant time period, manually identify and categorize responsive information, and then manually enter the information into a spreadsheet. This would amount to the “creation” by the County of a new record, which does not currently exist.
The CPRA does not require public agencies to create new records. “It is well established under California law . . . that, while the CPRA requires public agencies to provide access to their existing records, it does not require them to create new records to satisfy a request.” (See Sander v. State Bar of California (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 651, 665, citing Fredericks v. Superior Court (2015) 233 Cal.App.4th 209, 223-224.) Put another way, the CPRA requires public agencies to provides access to (or copies of) existing and identifiable public records in their possession. “Except with respect to public records exempt from disclosure by express provisions of law, each state or local agency, upon a request for a copy of records that reasonably describes an identifiable record or records, shall make the records promptly available to any person upon payment of fees covering direct costs of duplication or a statutory fee if applicable.” (Cal. Gov’t Code § 6253, subd. (b).)
2. Much, if not all, of the data you request is protected by law and exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
Even if Humboldt County were to undertake the exhaustive exercise described above to produce the information you seek, it is unlikely that its search would significantly aid your inquiry. This is because the data is subject to various legal protections which would prevent the County from producing much (if not all) of the information sought. At a minimum, the following protections from disclosure apply to limit what the County may provide:
Medical record information obtained by a coroner or medical examiner may not be released pursuant to Civil Code section 56.10(b)(8) and (c)(6), incorporated by Government Code section 6254(k);
Health and Safety Code section 103526(c), information contained on a death certificate is only available to authorized individuals based upon a certified statement of identity, incorporated by Gov. Code section 6254(k);
Health and Safety Code section 102100, confidential information included in a death or fetal death certificate is exempt from disclosure, incorporated by Gov. Code section 6254(k); Other medical information or similar files that would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy under Government Code section 6254(c) and California Constitution, article 1, section 1;
Protected organ donor information pursuant to Health and Safety Code section 7150, et seq.;
Personal and/or private information of individuals under Government Code section 6254(k), incorporating California Constitution, article 1, section 1;
Victim information protected by Marsy’s Law under California Constitution, article 1, section 28;
Privileged information prohibited from disclosure pursuant to federal and/or state evidence laws, such as Evidence Code section 1040. The above list is not exhaustive, but rather illustrative, and other claims of exemption may be determined applicable.
3. For the County to instead locate, review, copy, redact and then provide existing records containing all or a portion of the information sought in your request would be unduly burdensome and produce little result.
As described above, in order to determine whether a report in the County’s system created between the years 2000 and 2014 is responsive to your request, County staff would need to locate and manually open and read each individual paper file. Humboldt estimates there were around 230 child fatalities in the county between 2000 and the present. Some of these were not reported to the Coroner’s Office. Most of those files would be in paper form, some of which are quite lengthy. If not entirely exempt from disclosure under applicable law, each responsive report would then need to be reviewed and any non-disclosable information redacted.
For the period of 2015-2018, those reports stored in the RIMS system would need to be manually opened, printed, read and any confidential data manually redacted. Paper reports would similarly need to be located, read and redacted.
Given the County’s small size and limited staffing and the number and size of the individual records, to perform this exercise would place on undue burden on Humboldt County’s resources that is not required by the CPRA. Under applicable California law, even a focused, specific request, when it would require an agency to search volumes of documents or to produce a large volume of material may be objectional as “unduly burdensome.” (California First Amendment Coalition v. Superior Court (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 159, 166; citing American Civil Liberties Union Foundation v. Deukmejain (1982) 32 Cal.3d 440.)
For all of the foregoing reasons, Humboldt County respectfully requests that you withdraw, or reframe, your request in accordance with applicable laws. Please feel free to call me at 707-445- 7236 if you have any questions or to discuss this matter further; I would be happy to brainstorm with you to find ways to narrow the request.
Very truly yours,
Natalie Duke Deputy County Counsel, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office
Cc: Lt. Dennis Young, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office