Saturday, August 27, 2005

Court says police may enter emergency room without warrant

An interesting development in Vermont, as reported in the Boston Globe:

Law enforcement officers may enter a hospital emergency room without a warrant when they suspect a patient was a drunken driver, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday.

The court rejected an appeal by Adam Rheaume, who was charged with drunken driving after an accident in Highgate on May 19, 2002.

Justice Marilyn Skoglund, writing for a unanimous court, said that patients cannot expect full privacy in the emergency ward of a hospital. Such wards, she said, are open to emergency workers, medical staff and other hospital workers not involved in direct patient care, families and other patients, extinguishing any claim to privacy.

Besides, Skoglund said, Rheaume did not take any steps to protect any privacy he may have wished.

"Once the officer entered the trauma room, defendant did not ask him to leave or suggest the room was private or inaccessible in any way," she said. "Defendant did not attempt to leave or limit contact with the officer."

Rheaume was taken to Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans for treatment of injuries after the accident in Highgate. State Trooper Jeffrey Smith went to the hospital to investigate the crash after he was told by rescue workers that they believed Rheaume was drunk.

The Supreme Court said nurses gave him permission to see Rheaume and he walked into a trauma room whose door was open. Rheaume had cuts to his lip and tongue and his bleeding hands were wrapped.

Smith told Rheaume of his rights and asked if he would agree to be interviewed. Rheaume refused, saying he was in too much pain. Smith advised Rheaume of his rights under state law and asked whether he would agree to provide a blood sample to determine his drunkenness. Rheaume refused and Smith then cited him for drunken driving.

Skoglund wrote that before Rheaume was taken from the room for X-rays, he yelled out that he knew the trooper was there to charge him with drunken driving and "he would not have been drinking and driving were it not for a fight at a party he attended before the accident."

Rheaume asked District Court Judge Michael Kupersmith to suppress those statements, but the judge refused. So Rheaume agreed to a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The high court determined Friday that Kupersmith's ruling was appropriate and dismissed Rheaume's appeal.


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