Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Dr. William “Beau” Clark, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner

An attorney general’s opinion meant to clarify who is responsible for collecting forensic evidence from East Baton Rouge sexual assault cases has puzzled the coroner who sought it.

East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William “Beau” Clark has pushed to take over the collection of sexual assault evidence, saying Louisiana law mandates him to do so, and he asked the attorney general to back up that claim.

Sexual assault victims are currently treated at local hospitals, where doctors often are the ones who collect evidence.

The state’s top lawyer answered that the law mandates the coroner to perform examinations on sexual assault victims who have involved the police in their investigations. But here’s where it gets confusing: The letter also says other medical professionals are welcome to perform sexual assault evidence collection and that their findings will be admissible to court.

The letter’s murky wording left Clark and others scratching their heads, and Clark said the Attorney General’s Office is expected to release a clarification on the opinion soon.

“I have no idea what it means, to be quite honest with you,” Clark said.

The attorney general opinion was meant to answer five of Clark’s questions:

Who is responsible for collecting forensic evidence of sexual assaults?

Who can designate someone else to collect evidence?

Who is responsible for funding the Coroner’s Office if it is responsible for the examinations?

Who bears the liability if the Coroner’s Office is not funded?

Will evidence collected by someone other than the coroner be accepted in court?

“It is our opinion that the coroner or his designee must undertake such examinations, but that this duty is not intended to exist to the exclusion of others who may also undertake such examinations,” the attorney general’s letter says.

The letter, at least in Clark’s mind, is clear in answering that the city-parish is responsible for reimbursing the coroner the necessary money to examine sexual assault victims. It’s also clear that the city-parish would be liable for consequences of not funding the coroner’s efforts.

Clark unsuccessfully requested a more than 30 percent increase from the city-parish in his 2015 budget, which would have allowed him to hire four sexual assault nurse examiners. The $830 million budget already is stretched tightly, so much so that Metro Council members could not add pay raises for city employees who have spent years campaigning for them.

Still, the Coroner’s Office received a 10 percent increase in its $2.2 million budget. The money is spread across operational needs, which include personal services, employee benefits, supplies and contractual services.

Clark said he will ask the city-parish to pay up if the attorney general’s clarification confirms the coroner should pull all sexual assault examinations under his purview.

The 2015 budget was finalized and voted on in December, so it’s likely that the city-parish would need to pass a budget supplement to give additional money to the coroner.

William Daniel, the city-parish’s chief administrative officer, said he would not speculate on the possibility of a budget change.

“The parish certainly thinks we’re doing everything perfectly from our standpoint,” Daniel said.