Mr G, a truck driver, was brought to the burn unit of a university hospital after his semitrailer truck was involved in a head-on collision with a pickup truck. The pickup truck, which was traveling at high speed, was driven by an intoxicated man fleeing the police. The driver of the pickup truck died on impact, and Mr G was severely burned when his truck exploded. He was transported via ambulance to the university hospital in a sedated and comatose state.
Ms A was the staff nurse working in the burn unit when the patient was admitted. She was approached by one of the police officers, Officer J, who had accompanied Mr G in the ambulance. Officer J requested that Ms A take a blood sample from the unconscious patient. Ms A politely refused, explaining that hospital policy forbade taking blood from a comatose patient. Officer J reassured Ms A that he wasn’t seeking the blood sample because the patient was a suspect; rather, he wanted to establish that the patient had not been driving under the influence as a protective measure.
When Ms A again refused, the officer demanded that she take the blood sample. Ms A told him that hospital policy required either a warrant or a court order (neither of which the officer had), or the patient’s consent (which wasn’t possible because he was comatose). The officer believed that he had the authority to order a blood draw under the state’s code. The nurse believed that without a warrant or legal document, blood could not be taken from a patient who is unable to consent. The discussion became heated, and the officer told Ms A that he would arrest her if she continued to refuse his order. Ms A showed the officer a printed copy of the hospital’s policy, but he was unmoved.
Ms A then called her supervisor and put him on speakerphone. Officer J told the supervisor he was going to arrest Ms A and hold her criminally liable for not proceeding with the blood draw. The supervisor began to tell the officer that he was making a mistake, when Officer J cut the supervisor off and grabbed hold of Ms A to arrest her. A struggle ensued and was caught on the hospital’s security cameras and Officer J’s bodycam. Ms A began shouting for help as she was led out of the hospital, put in handcuffs, told she was being arrested, and put into a police car.
Ms A eventually was released, and no charges were filed against her. An investigation was launched against Officer J, and he was eventually fired from his position. Mr G, the burn patient, died from his injuries.
In this case, the police officer mistakenly believed that he had the authority to compel hospital personnel to draw blood from the victim of an accident. However, Ms A was correct when she cited the hospital policy. Officer J wrongly believed that implied consent was applicable in the case or that exigent circumstances of the crash made it necessary; however, the patient was the victim of the accident, not a suspect. A 2016 US Supreme Court decision permits warrantless breath tests but not warrantless blood tests in drunk driving arrests.
Based on the security camera videos, which were released to the public, there was general agreement that Officer J had acted inappropriately in arresting Ms A. She hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit. The city settled with Ms A for $500,000. A rally against police brutality that called for the firing of Officer J took place and after an internal investigation, he was fired from his job.
The notoriety of the case led to the state’s Judiciary Committee to unanimously vote to start drafting a bill meant to clarify consent laws regarding police-ordered blood draws. After the state’s House of Representatives passed the bill, the state Governor signed it into law. The new bill requires officers in the state to present a warrant to obtain a blood draw. The hospital also changed its policy after the incident. Now police officers are not allowed in patient-care areas and have to speak to supervisors, not nurses, when requesting blood draws.
More than 2 years after the accident, Officer J filed a lawsuit against his former police department, claiming he was wrongfully terminated for following orders and complying with department policies. Officer J’s lawsuit claimed that he and Ms A were both following orders from their supervisors. The lawsuit claimed that although Ms A was awarded $500,000, Officer J’s life had been ruined and he has been left “to live in seclusion with scant employment opportunities.” This case is currently pending.
Ms A handled the situation appropriately by explaining the hospital policy to the police officer. She calmly told him that 1 of 3 criteria — warrant, court order, or patient consent — had to be present for a police-ordered blood draw. The footage from the officer’s bodycam showed that until Ms A was physically grabbed and arrested, she had been acting professionally and appropriately.
Although it’s always best to avoid confrontations with the police, health care professionals have a responsibility to protect the rights of patients, particularly those who are unable to speak for themselves.
Ann W. Latner, JD, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, New York.