A recent viral video from Utah shows a detective unjustifiably trying to perform a blood alcohol content (BAC) test on an unconscious driver and arresting the nurse that stood up for that driver’s rights. The situation highlights the cavalier attitude that many cops take to enforcing laws dealing with operating under the influence (OUI).
In this blog post, we’ll explain why the cop was violating the unconscious driver’s rights. In the next, we’ll show why the heavy-handed arrest of the nurse to try to enforce the law actually makes it far more difficult to enforce any law, in the long run.
The incident, which was caught on camera, happened on July 26, 2017, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
There had been a terrible car accident in which a suspect fled police in a pickup truck and then slammed head-on into a tractor trailer. The suspect died in the accident. The truck driver, however, was severely burned and had to be sedated on his way to the University of Utah Hospital, arriving in a coma.
Nevertheless, police wanted to perform a BAC test on the unconscious trucker. They claimed that it was to exonerate him in the accident, but that’s not what police do – police search for evidence that a crime was committed, not for evidence that it wasn’t. The officer who went to the hospital, detective Jacob Payne, admitted to hospital personnel that he didn’t have a warrant, that the trucker wasn’t under arrest, had not given consent to the BAC test, and that the police had no probable cause that he’d committed a crime. So the nurse, Alex Wubbels, refused to let them take a blood sample.
In response, Detective Payne claimed that Wubbels was “interfering with a police investigation,” arrested her, and forcibly dragged her from the scene.
According to the police report, Payne could perform a BAC test on the trucker because of “exigent circumstances and implied consent law,” but neither excuse works.
Utah’s implied consent law, like Maine’s, puts administrative OUI penalties – a drivers’ license suspension – for refusing a BAC test. The trucker, however, couldn’t refuse: He was in a coma. The implied consent law, therefore, was irrelevant.
On the other hand, warrantless searches like this need to fall within one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of these is for exigent circumstances, which allows police to take immediate, warrantless action if it would prevent evidence – like alcohol in someone’s bloodstream – from disappearing. However, to make use of the exigency exception, there needs to be a probable cause of a crime, something that Detective Payne explicitly admitted he didn’t have.
Without a justification for pushing for a BAC test, police should never have been in the hospital, in the first place. Arresting nurse Wubbels so forcefully after she stood up for her unconscious patient’s rights, though, only made things far worse and will actually hinder law enforcement efforts in the future.
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