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Q&A: Why do police leave bodies on the road after a traffic fatality?

fatal collision, citrus heights
Citrus Heights police personnel respond to the scene of a fatal collision involving a pedestrian on March 28, 2018. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
A recent traffic fatality in Citrus Heights where an 81-year-old woman’s body remained on the street for over an hour during rush hour traffic left some asking why police leave bodies of the deceased on the street after a fatal collision.

Sergeant Kris Frey, with the Citrus Heights Police Department’s Traffic Unit, provided an answer to The Sentinel on Thursday, stating the reason is due to a “chain of custody” that applies once a death has been declared.

“On a fatality, when we have a pedestrian in the roadway, or a driver in the car, who is deemed to be dead… the body cannot be touched and it then becomes the coroner’s case,” said Frey, noting that the site is then treated as a crime scene and the roadway is shut down. “All the property that’s on the decedent is to be left on the decedent until the coroner gets there.”

While awaiting the coroner’s arrival, which can take more than an hour, Frey said officers will cover up the body and “do our best to protect the dignity of the deceased by putting up shields or utilizing cars” to block the view. He said the main delay with the coroner arriving on scene is due to drive time, but will also depend on the day of the week and time of day the crash occurs, “if there happens to be a lot of fatalities” elsewhere.

How often does the coroner get involved in investigating deaths?
According to the website for the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, not all deaths are required to be reported to the coroner, but California Law requires the coroner to “inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of sudden deaths where the attending physician is unable to determine the cause of death or the death is the result of homicide, suicide, accidental or undetermined means.”

“Generally, natural deaths occurring in a hospital or medical facility and/or under a hospice physician’s care are not coroner cases which require a coroner death investigation,” the website says, under a frequently asked questions section. The site also says the coroner will investigate deaths “where the decedent has not been seen by their physician within 20 days preceding the death.”

Who can declare a person deceased?
Typically, paramedics will declare a person deceased, but police can declare a person deceased in cases where there are “obvious signs of death,” Frey said.

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