Back in early September, a viral video hit the internet of a Utah detective roughly arresting a nurse after she refused to let him conduct an unlawful blood alcohol content (BAC) test. Now, that detective has been fired from the police force.
We’ve covered the incident on our blog before, but the facts of the case bear repeating.
After a police chase led to a horrific crash that killed the suspect and severely hurt the driver of a tractor-trailer, a police officer went to the hospital to conduct a BAC test on the trucker. The officer, 27-year veteran Jacob Payne, didn’t have a warrant, so he needed his search to fit into one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. The trucker was unconscious, so Payne couldn’t get his consent to search, and not only was there no probable cause that the trucker had committed the crime of operating under the influence (OUI); Payne even admitted that the trucker wasn’t even being investigated.
Despite the fact that Payne’s BAC test would’ve violated the trucker’s constitutional rights, he pressed for one, anyway. Nurse Alex Wubbels, however, stopped him with her hospital’s policy: No warrant or consent means no BAC test.
Payne responded by roughly arresting her, claiming she was “interfering with a police investigation” – an investigation that, moments before, Payne had explicitly stated was not going on.
On October 10, the Salt Lake City Police Department fired Payne after over two months of internal investigations. Additionally, Payne’s supervisor, Lieutenant James Tracy, who had ordered Payne to arrest Wubbels, was demoted.
Police chief Mike Brown stated that he was “deeply troubled” by their conduct that brought “significant disrepute” on their department.
Central to the situation from the start was the body camera footage of detective Payne’s deputy, which was rolling throughout the entire ordeal. It provided solid and incontrovertible evidence of Wubbels’ poise and Payne’s aggressive behavior during their scuffle. As Wubbels’ attorney noted, the footage prevented the often inevitable confusion of the “she-said, they-said” situation that arises without body cameras. Police rely on that confusion to turn complex situations into credibility contests, with juries often siding with them simply because they wear a law enforcement badge.
Of course, there is a downside to Payne’s firing, embodied in the question: Would this have happened if the video had not gone viral?
As Police Chief Brown admitted, the firing was, at least in part, motivated by the “disrepute” that Payne’s conduct had brought on the Department. If the video hadn’t been seen millions of times and that “disrepute” was diminished, would Payne still have a job?
When police officers like Jacob Payne so egregiously overreach, it not only violates the rights of others, it even backfires on law enforcement. That someone, finally, is being held accountable for their conduct on the job is refreshing to see.
William T. Bly is a criminal defense attorney and a OUI-defense attorney in the state of Maine. Call his law office at (207) 571-8146 or contact him online if you are facing charges there and need legal representation.
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