The news feed that I read each day came up with a link to an interesting legal opinion in a Georgia district court relating to care in the emergency department.
The case involved federal agents who went to a trauma center to question a patient in the emergency department who was being treated for a gunshot wound. During the questioning, another patient was brought in by ambulance for a gunshot wound. The detective watched as doctors “stuck their fingers into defendant’s chest wounds.” After the patient had been wheeled off to surgery, detectives confiscated the clothing that had been left in the room as evidence. The patient was later indicted for shooting the first gunshot victim. The patient-defendant then sought to suppress the evidence against him that was obtained in the emergency department, alleging that detectives were not lawfully present in the emergency department and that the incriminating nature of the confiscated clothing was not readily apparent.
The district court denied the defendant’s motion.
However, it was the reason for the denial that raised my interest.
In order for an officer to be “lawfully” in a given location without violating the Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches and seizures, the defendant can’t have an “expectation of privacy” where the evidence is obtained.
According to the district court in Georgia – and several other courts cited in the court’s opinions – patients don’t have an “expectation of privacy” in the emergency department. “A defendant does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in an emergency, operation, or trauma room that the defendant shares with other patients and in which medical staff administers critical treatment.”
However, that whole “expectation of privacy” concept also applies to other areas of law, for example … photography. People can be legally photographed without their permission in public. That’s why paparazzi sit and wait outside their targets’ homes to take their pictures. People cannot be photographed without their permission in places where they have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” – such as in their home, in a hotel room, or in a bathroom. Otherwise, people would be free to videotape you through the cracks in your drapes.
So now it appears that in certain states patients have no privacy right in an emergency department. See a trauma patient being rolled in while you’re waiting in an emergency department bed in Georgia? This court opinion seems to give you permission to whip out your Nikon and snap away.
Or do courts plan to give different rights to those accused of crimes?
A copy of the full opinion, United States v. Martez Howard (1:10-CR-121-ODE, Northern District GA) can be found here (.pdf file)