This training material was originally developed by Lt John Kalenowski and I while working in the Duluth Police Department Detective Bureau, for the Arrowhead Regional Law Enforcement Training Association. The purpose of this outline is to review death investigations for the responding field officer. You will recognize much of the material from some of your previous training, and certainly from your on-the-job experiences.
The material presented is not intended to be all-encompassing; it touches only lightly on matters of concern to follow-up investigators, supervisors, administrators, medical examiners, coroners and others in the death investigation system. Hopefully, it will enable the field officer to better understand and fulfill his/her role in the death investigation system.
I will be discussing some of the less obvious things that a police officer should be looking for at the scene of death, and/or during the initial interview of witnesses and other preliminary investigation. I will not waste your time listing things that are basic police procedures, common to all investigations. Nor do I intend to deal with common sense matters, except insofar as they might be misleading. I anticipate that all users of this material are competent and experienced law enforcement officers. The material presented is intended only to supplement their existing skills and knowledge.
The field officer must be able to make an educated guess of the cause and manner of death during the preliminary investigation (ie; first response) and make a correct decision as to whether additional investigation is required. Certainly, it is rarely possible to make a final determination at the scene. While it is better to err on the side of too much investigation, frivolous or unnecessarily exhaustive investigations which only confirm the obvious are a drain on your department's resources.
The purpose of the death investigation system is to make an official determination of the "manner" and "cause" of death. The proper determination of "manner of death" is of great importance to the family and associates of the deceased, for some very legitimate practical and emotional reasons. Law enforcement has a critical role to play in such determinations. Incomplete preliminary investigations, bad guesses, and failure to recognize inconsistent evidence compromise the ability of the death investigation system to make a proper determination. Even when the errors are caught later in the system, the loss of immediacy can never be recovered by the follow-up investigators. The on-scene responding officer has the best (sometimes the only) opportunity to get candid statements, and make critical observations. His/her preliminary estimates of the manner of death, if correct, can guide him/her in the determination of what to do next, what additional evidence to look for to buttress or question his/her estimate, and whether or not additional procedures are needed.
It is not possible, obviously, for a field officer to make a final judgment as to manner of death. He/she must view even the most obvious heart attack case with a bit of skepticism. Further, the field officer cannot properly take on a full-scale investigation. Every officer has to know his/her limitations, and recognize those situations requiring more investigation.
As important, sometimes, as doing the right things and making the correct decisions, is the ability to avoid doing the wrong things. I hope that this material will be useful in that respect, too.
MINNESOTA STATUTES, CHAPTER 390
Statute 390 defines the death investigation system in Minnesota. It recognizes that the investigation of unexplained deaths is a special situation, requiring the granting of special powers and duties to various officials. The police, and other officials, are given authority to do things beyond what they can do in other types of investigations. The constitutionality of these special authorities has been tested repeatedly, and upheld.
Statute 390 states that officials will investigate all violent deaths (whether homicidal, suicidal, or accidental), and all unusual or mysterious deaths. They must also investigate all deaths of inmates, and the death of any person whose body will be disposed of in an irretrievable manner such as cremation.
The importance of death investigation goes way beyond merely determining if a homicide has occurred, although that is certainly a major concern. Once established by the investigation, the "manner of death" has significance in the area of civil law, public safety, and criminal justice
Insurance policies, for instance, typically do not pay off in cases of suicide; many pay double in the case of criminal or accidental death. Thus a determination of "accidental" as opposed to "suicide" can be of great significance to the family of the deceased. The rightful claim of the estate of a deceased killed by another's negligence, will be negated if the deceased is improperly found to have died by means other than an accident.
Therefore the common statement that the police do not "work for the insurance company" or "do civil cases", is not strictly true. Our work in the area of death investigation is in many cases, civil in nature, and statute 390 specifically assigns that work to law enforcement.
Death investigations also impact public safety. Proper identification of the cause and manner of deaths assists public safety officials in identifying unsafe conditions in our environment.
And obviously, the criminal justice system has a big stake in a well defined and properly functioning death investigation system.
Minn Stat 390 attempts to define such a system. It grants the power to conduct an "Inquest". An inquest is a formal legal process similar to a criminal trial, involving a jury, witnesses (supeonaed if necessary; they can be forced to testify), and evidence.
The statute also grants certain parties the right to take temporary custody of the scene of the death, and the body and effects of the deceased. Note that officials do not need a warrant to enter the scene of a death covered by this statute. While this statute does NOT grant the police the right to conduct a warrantless search and seizure spree, it does grant temporary custody of the scene of the death to certain officials. Once legally at the scene, the plain sight rule and similar legal exceptions to the warrant requirement may apply. However, before doing any actual searching of the scene, you should consider whether any potential suspect would have standing to object. A warrant or consent to search must be obtained in any questionable case.
Various officials are charged by the statute with responsibilities for various aspects of the death investigation, as listed below. Just who gets which responsibilities and authorities, depends on the County Board. The County Board must decide which death investigation system to utilize within its county; the Coroner System, or the Medical Examiner System. This is of major significance to law enforcement, since the law enforcement community ends up with considerably more responsibility under the Medical Examiner system.
The special powers and responsibilities mandated by Statute 390, do not apply to all deaths. They apply to "mysterious, unusual, or violent" deaths, the deaths of inmates of institutions such as jails, and certain other specific situations involving the dispositions of bodies.
Death Certificates regarding such deaths may only be signed by the coroner, probate court judge, or medical examiner, after a proper investigation. The deceased's doctor may sign the death certificate if it is an obvious natural death, not within the scope of Statute 390.
THE CORONER SYSTEM
A coroner, if the Minnesota county chooses to have one, is an elected official who investigates cases of violent, unusual or mysterious death, and in certain other cases. he/she can do this in spite of the objections of the deceased's family, or any other person, including the deceased. he/she can conduct an autopsy, regardless of whether or not there is an indication of a crime having been committed. If the next of kin objects to the autopsy, the coroner needs a court order. He/she is charged with the power (and the responsibility) to "proceed to the body, take charge of it, and when necessary, order that there be no interference with the body or the scene of the death." He/she can order any person (including the cops!) to be excluded from the scene of the death.
The coroner may determine the "manner of death" on his/her own, based solely on his/her own investigation if he/she so chooses. The coroner also can convene and conduct an inquest, supeona witnesses, and issue arrest warrants arising out of the inquest. Note that an inquest is not a criminal trial, but if the inquest jury decides that a murder has been committed, and that probable cause exists to believe that a certain person committed it, the coroner must issue an arrest warrant for that person.
While he/she typically relies on law enforcement officials for assistance, the coroner is not required to do so. The coroner has legal custody of the body, in cases of violent, unusual or mysterious deaths. When a crime is suspected, the coroner may take custody of any material evidence at the scene, without a warrant. He/she can exclude any person from the scene, including, presumably, the police.
THE MEDICAL EXAMINER SYSTEM
In those Minnesota counties which do not utilize the Coroner System, there is no Coroner. The powers of the Coroner are divided up between the Medical Examiner, Sheriff, Probate Court, and the County Attorney.
The Medical Examiner is a hired employee of the County Board. He/she has certain official powers. He/she has the power to conduct an autopsy, based on his/her own judgment. If the next of kin formally objects, he/she must obtain a court order before doing the autopsy. He/she may make a final determination of the manner of death if an inquest is not convened. He/she is not, however, a "mini-coroner"; he/she is basically limited to the conduct of the medical portions of the death investigation.
The Sheriff (and, by extension, other law enforcement officials working under his/her umbrella) is mandated to "proceed to the body, take charge of it, and when necessary, order that there by no interference with it or the scene of the death," in cases of violent, unusual or mysterious deaths. Note that this may be an exception to the warrant requirement in some cases. However, it is always best to obtain a search warrant as soon as practical, if there is any question whatsoever. More on the warrant issue later; but in brief, we can take custody and occupancy of the scene, but not search it without a warrant
In addition, the Sheriff is charged with conducting the investigation into the death, except for the medical determinations.
The County Attorney decides if an inquest is necessary. If an inquest is ordered, it is conducted by the Probate Court.
Any duties of the coroner not specifically transferred to the Sheriff, County Attorney, or Probate Court, belong to the Medical Examiner.