Attorney General: Wayne H. Carver, M.D., Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 1991-018 Formal Opinion, Attorney General of Connecticut

Attorney General's Opinion

Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal

May 21, 1991

Wayne H. Carver, M.D.
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner
11 Shuttle Road
Farmington, CT 06032

Dear Dr. Carver:

This letter responds to your request for an opinion dated January 15, 1991. In that request, you asked for a clarification of your authority as a sub registrar of vital statistics to issue a disinterment permit in a case of alleged suspicious death. The request was prompted by a request you received from the parents of a deceased man asking you to issue a disinterment permit for the disinterment of their son for a second autopsy.

According to your letter, the deceased, Travis Jackson, was a twenty-seven year old black male who was found dead on a couch. Autopsy findings were equivocal and the cause and manner of death were certified as undetermined. The next of kin of the deceased suspects a subtle, homicidal injury which the autopsy could neither prove nor disprove. You have asked whether you have the authority under Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 to issue a disinterment permit for the exhumation of the deceased's remains for a second autopsy. You asked how your authority as a sub registrar under Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 is affected by Conn. Gen. Stat. and Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-413.

The brief answer to your question is that the authority of the Chief Medical Examiner as a sub registrar under Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 is limited to issuing burial and removal permits. It does not extend to the issuing of disinterment permits.

Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 states:

No deceased person shall be buried in the town in which he dies until a burial permit, specifying the place of burial and stating that the death certificate and any other certificate required by law have been returned and recorded, has been issued by the registrar of vital statistics, and the registrar shall record the place of any burial other than a public cemetery. Such registrar shall appoint suitable persons as sub registrars, who shall be authorized to issue burial permits based upon certificates as hereinbefore provided, and also to issue removal permits based upon certificates as provided in sections 7-68 and 7-69, in the same manner as is required of the registrar. ... The Chief Medical Examiner, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner and Associate Medical Examiners shall be considered sub registrars of any town in which death occurs for the purpose of issuing burial permits and removal permits. ...

(Emphasis added.)

The section clearly limits the role of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner and Associate Medical Examiners as sub registrars to that of issuing burial and removal permits. There is no mention of them being authorized to issue disinterment permits. The section of the Connecticut General Statutes on the issuance of removal and disinterment permits, section 7-68, is titled "Issuance of Disinterment Or Removal Permit", (emphasis supplied) suggesting that the two types of permits are not one and the same.

Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-68 provides:

On receipt by the registrar of vital statistics of any town of a certificate of death containing the facts required by section 7-65 for a permit for burial, or when it appears that such certificate is already a matter of record, or that the original burial permit, by virtue of which the body of any deceased person was brought into such town, is on file or recorded in such registrar's office, the registrar, upon request, shall issue a permit for the disinterment or removal of such body; but no permit for the disinterment of the body of any deceased person shall be issued in any case where death was caused by a communicable disease, except by the permission and under the direction of the town director of health.

Statutes should be construed to give meaning to each word in a statute. O'Brien Properties, Inc. v. Rodriguez, 215 Conn. 367, 372 (1990); Berger v. Tonken, 192 Conn. 581, 589 (1984). The legislature would not have used the word "or" if the two words were one and the same. Further, the interpretation by those charged with its enforcement demonstrates that a removal permit is different form a disinterment permit as is evident in the fact that the registrars of vital statistics issue them as two distinct documents. A removal permit, as the name suggests, is a permit required for the transfer of a deceased body form one town to another while a disinterment permit is the permit required for the exhumation of a body.

When a statute's language is unambiguous, we must construe it to mean what it plainly expresses. Johnson v. Manson, 196 Conn. 309, 314 (1985). This is particularly so, considering that the language in this case is consistent with the legislative intent in appointing the chief Medical Examiner, the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner and the Associate Chief Medical Examiners sub registrars. The intent was to facilitate funeral arrangements for bodies taken to the Chief Medical Examiner's office, not to burden the Chief Medical Examiner with all the responsibilities of a town registrar. 22 H.R. Proc., p. 1840-1841 (1979) (Remarks of Rep. LaRosa).

Not only does Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 limit the role of the Chief Medical Examiner as a sub registrar, Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-413 requires him to obtain a court order for disinterment where death occurred in suspicious circumstances and the body was buried without proper certification of death. Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-413 states:

If death occurred under circumstances as enumerated in subsection (a) of section 19a-406 and if the body has been buried without proper certification of death, the Chief Medical Examiner or his deputy, upon ascertaining such facts, shall notify the state's attorney of the judicial district in which the body was buried. The state's attorney shall thereupon present such facts to the judge of the Superior Court of such judicial district, and the judge may by written order require the body to be exhumed and an autopsy performed at the office of the chief medical examiner. A copy of such order shall be filed with the registrar of vital statistics of the town in which the body was buried. A full and complete report of the facts developed by such autopsy and the findings of the person making the same shall be filed without unnecessary delay and a copy given to the state's attorney of the judicial district within which the death occurred or the body was buried. (Emphasis added.)

Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-406 (a) states in pertinent part:

The chief medical examiner shall investigate all human deaths in following categories: (1) Violent deaths, whether apparently homicidal, suicidal or accidental, including but not limited to deaths due to thermal, chemical, electrical or radiation injury, and death due to criminal abortion, whether apparently self-induced or not; (2) sudden or unexpected deaths not caused by readily recognizable disease; (3) deaths under suspicious circumstances; (4) deaths of persons whose bodies are to be cremated, buried at sea or otherwise disposed of so as to be thereafter unavailable for examination; (5) deaths related to disease resulting from employment or to accident while employed; (6) deaths related to disease which might constitute a threat to public health.

Thus, pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-413, the role of the Chief Medical Examiner, in a situation as this where death is alleged to nave occurred in suspicious circumstances, is to ascertain the facts and notify the state's attorney of the judicial district in which the body was buried, if in his judgment the facts warrant doing so. It is up to the state's attorney to apply to the judge of the Superior Court of such judicial district for an order requiring that the body be exhumed and an autopsy performed.

In addition to requiring the Chief Medical Examiner or his deputy to ascertain that death occurred in one of the circumstances enumerated in Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-406 before initiating an application for a court order, Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-413 also requires them, as a threshold matter, to ascertain that there was no proper certification of death.

You asked how Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-68 affects your authority as sub registrar. Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-68 authorizes town registrars of vital statistics to issue removal and disinterment permits. This section, unlike section 7-65, does not by its terms make the Chief Medical Examiner a sub registrar for the purpose of issuing disinterment permits. Therefore, the only way it can affect the Chief Medical Examiner's authority as a sub registrar is if we can conclude that the Chief Medical Examiner's authority under Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 extends to the issuance of disinterment permits. However, as previously stated, Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 limits the role of the Chief Medical Examiner as a sub registrar to that of issuing burial and removal permits. Further, if one were to construe section 7-68 as authorizing the Chief Medical Examiner to issue disinterment permits pursuant to section 7-68, such a construction would render Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-413 mere surplusage. Thus there would be no reason for the whole process of the Chief Medical Examiner notifying the state's attorney, who in turn, presents the facts to the Superior Court who may issue the order to disinter, if the Chief Medical Examiner could simply issue the disinterment order directly pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-68. It is a maxim of statutory construction that, "...we must consider the statutory scheme as a whole, giving meaning to every section, and assuming no word or phrase to be superfluous." Berger v. Tonken, supra , at 589. Therefore, Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-68 does not authorize the Chief Medical Examiner to issue disinterment permits and Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-68 does not increase the Chief Medical Examiner's authority as a sub registrar.

In summary, your authority as a sub registrar under Conn. Gen. Stat. 7-65 is limited to the issuance of burial and removal permits. Conn. Gen. Stat. 19a-413 sets forth the methodology to be followed to obtain a disinterment order from the courts in appropriate cases. Under that section, the proper procedure is for you, if you believe that the facts warrant it, to notify the state's attorney of the judicial district in which the deceased was buried. It will then be up to the state's attorney to apply to the Superior Court for a disinterment order.

Very truly yours,

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL
ATTORNEY GENERAL


Patrick B. Kwanashie
Assistant Attorney General

RB/PKB/jsk

cc:  S. Evans Downing
       Chairman
       Commission On Medicolegal Investigations
       11 Shuttle Road
       Farmington, CT 06032 


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