Obituary For a Homeless Litigant

The Nov. 3, 2011 New York Times has an obituary for Yvonne McCain.  She was a homeless mother who, in 1983 sued the City of New York for failing to provide her small family with habitable emergency shelter.  Here is one of  the court decisions, the one that best summarizes a series of smaller parts in this very complex situation and which states definitively that families have to be provided with shelter.  This decision was rendered in 1987, but the full case didn’t conlude until 2008.  http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=3375906449026576910&q=mccain+koch&hl=en&as_sdt=2,39  Because Yvonne McCain had the courage to use the legal system, families in New York have been able to expect decent transitional housing for nearly a quarter of a century. 

 

Under the law, what happens if a homeless person is found dead and nobody knows who it is?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

State laws require coroners and medical examiners to investigate unexplained deaths and deaths that are likely to have resulted from a crime (attack, illegal drug use, etc…).[1]  So, if you die outside, in an abandoned building, or at a shelter or anyplace else outside of a hospital without having had a recently treated medical condition, the coroner or medical examiner will have to figure out the cause of your death. This might be a quick death scene evaluation where they can quickly determine that the victim died of exposure or it might be a longer investigation at the coroner or medical examiner’s lab.

In connection with determining the cause of death and issuing a death certificate, the coroner or medical examiner typically has a legal obligation to identify the person who has died.[2]   This might involve going through the decedent’s possessions, accessing police records, tracing dental records, searching through databases of missing persons,[3] tracing DNA…  The state’s “disposition of body” or “vital records/ death certificates” law will likely list some investigative steps for coroners and ME’s needing to identify bodies.  If the law does not list investigative steps, the guidelines for these investigations could arise from coroners’ professional standards published by the state coroners’ or medical examiners’ professional association or else an internal policy manual for the particular county coroner or medical examiner’s office.[4] 

State laws use the phrase “unclaimed dead bodies” to refer to people who have died without identification and whose remains have not been collected by relatives or others prepared to provide for burial or other final disposition.  These laws, which are typically in the statutory code’s “health and safety” category tell when and how to dispose of the unclaimed remains.  Some states require burial or cremation at government expense.[5]  Some allow the state’s anatomical board to regulate disposal of the body.[6]  Some allow the bodies to be donated for medical research.[7]  Note that medical examiners post information about unclaimed dead bodies in the National Unclaimed Persons Data System.
See also the FBI site that lists found remains of missing and unidentified persons.


[1] Find those state laws through Justia, Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, or even using a search engine with terms like “California law coroner.”

[2] Sample laws:

Pennsylvania –  35 PS 450.506.1
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, no certificate of death or fetal death shall be issued in this Commonwealth if the body or fetal remains have not been positively identified unless the person issuing the certificate of death first obtains a DNA sample and submits the same to the Pennsylvania State Police for storage, for forensic DNA analysis, including nuclear and mitochondrial DNA typing, and for inclusion in any appropriate DNA database…”

Washington –  Rev. C. Wash 43.43.770

“It shall be the duty of the sheriff or director of public safety of every county, or the chief of police of every city or town, or the chief officer of other law enforcement agencies operating within this state, coroners or medical examiners, to record whenever possible the fingerprints and such other identification data as may be useful to establish identity, of all unidentified dead bodies found within their respective jurisdictions, and to furnish to the section all data so obtained. The section shall search its files and otherwise make a reasonable effort to determine the identity of the deceased and notify the contributing agency of the finding.”

South Carolina – Code 1976 17-5-57-
“If the body cannot be identified through reasonable efforts, the coroner must forward the body to the Medical University of South Carolina or other suitable facility for preservation.”

New York  – NY [Executive] Section 838 (McKinney)
“Every county medical examiner shall furnish the division promptly with copies of fingerprints on standardized eight inch by eight inch fingerprint cards, personal descriptions and other identifying data including date and place of death, of all deceased persons whose deaths are in a classification requiring inquiry  by the coroner where the deceased is not identified…

[3] Read Nancy Ritter, Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster, NIJ Journal issue 256 (January 2007) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/jr000256.pdf which is a Department of Justice article about use of the state and federal missing person registries.

[4] These manuals are not easily available. Here are the standards for autopsies. https://netforum.avectra.com/temp/ClientImages/NAME/eed6c85d-5871-4da1-aef3-abfc9bb80b92.pdf  If it isn’t available in your public library or the county law library, you might find excerpts posted on the county medical examiner’s Web site which you can navigate to via http://www.statelocalgov.net/.

[5] Examples:  New York. Social Service Law Section 141; California Health and Safety Code Section 7104; Nevada Revised Statutes Chapter 451.400; DC Code Title 5, Chapter 14, Part 11 (5-14-11); Official Code of Georgia Title 31 Chapter 21.

[6] Examples: Texas Health & Safety Code Section 691.023; Colorado Revised Statutes 12-34-201; Florida Statutes Chapter 406 Part 50.

[7] Examples: Ohio Revised Code 1713.34; Arkansas Code Title 20, Chapter 17, Subchapter 7; Delaware Code Title 16 Chapter 27 part 02.