EXPLANATION: Utah Nurse Arrested For Blocking Blood Draw
Salt Lake City, UT - A viral video shows a Salt Lake City detective arresting a nurse for blocking a blood draw, leaving people looking for answers.
The police department is conducting an internal investigation and cannot release any conclusions until the investigation in complete.
Below, I'm going to offer a detailed explanation of the facts, as we know them, but there may be additional details which we aren't aware of. This is an opinion based on limited information and the final investigation may yield a different conclusion.
The incident started on July 26 at around 2 PM when a Utah Highway Patrol officer was in pursuit of a pickup truck on ST 89/91 near Sardine Canyon, according to Salt Lake Tribune.
While fleeing, the pickup truck crashed into a semi-truck head-on, causing an explosion.
The pickup driver, Marcos Torres, 26, died on scene. The semi driver, William Gray, exited his vehicle while he was on fire. He was transported to University Hospital in Salt Lake City for treatment.
You can see video of the crash below:
The Blood Draw
Any time there is a collision resulting in death, it's normal to determine if anybody involved was impaired. Because Gray was transported to Salt Lake City, Logan police officers on scene asked Salt Lake police to obtain a blood sample from Gray.
Salt Lake Detective Jeff Payne, a trained phlebotomist, responded to obtain a blood sample from Gray, but Gray was unconscious.
Nurse Alex Wubbels told Payne that an agreement between the hospital and police department does not allow for a warrantless blood draw without patient consent or without the patient being under arrest.
Detective Payne consulted with the watch commander, Lt. James Tracy, who told him to arrest Wubbels for interfering with the investigation if she didn't allow him to draw blood from Gray.
Wubbels went over the policy with the detective again, and Detective Payne arrested Wubbels. Bodycam video of the incident shows the arrest.
Wubbels was later released without charges and the police department has launched an internal investigation.
You can see the video of the arrest below:
The Lawfulness Of The Search
Breath samples and blood draws are technically a "search" and governed under 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. A person is being searched when their blood is drawn, and then their blood is being searched to obtain evidence of impairment.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (Birchfield v North Dakota) that while breath samples were minimally invasive and did not require a warrant, blood samples did require a warrant.
Prior to the case in 2016, there was no clear guidance to law enforcement which said that blood draws required warrants, and warrantless blood draws could have been legal under a search incident to arrest or implied consent laws.
So a warrant is always required, right? Not exactly. There are multiple exceptions to any search warrant requirement. The two exceptions for blood draws are consent and exigent circumstances.
Gray was incapable of giving his consent, so that was off of the table.
That leaves exigency as the only possible exception in this case. The most common argument for exigency in a blood draw is that the drugs or alcohol, in a person's blood, may significantly dissipate in the time that it takes to get a warrant.
Case law on this is mixed around the country, with some jurisdictions allowing for it and others prohibiting it. The U.S. Supreme court specifically left the exigency argument open in Birchfield v North Dakota.
Does that mean that Detective Payne could have completed a legal blood draw without a warrant. Possibly, except for one thing; Gray wasn't under arrest, which suggests that there was no probable cause.
If there were no reasonable grounds to believe that Gray may have been impaired by drugs or alcohol, then a warrantless blood draw would have required consent.
Based on established case law, it appears unlikely that the search of Gray's person would have been lawful.
The Arrest Of Nurse Wubbels
In the state of Utah, it's not a crime to interfere with an unlawful search. If the search was lawful, then we must consider if there was probable case that Nurse Wubbels knowingly interfered with the blood draw.
The detective, a trained phlebotomist, could have presumably ignored her and tried to extract the blood. At that point if somebody physically obstructed him, then there would be a potential case for interference with a public servant. That doesn't appear to be what happened.
Nurse Wubbels informed the detective of hospital policy which is no more than a failure to cooperate. I'm not familiar if there is specific Utah case law in which failure to cooperate constitutes interference, but it seems unlikely.
Based on the criminal violation, and the lawfulness of the search, it is fairly certain that the arrest was unlawful.
Lt. Tracy's Orders
Watch commander, Lt. Tracy, reportedly ordered the blood draw and arrest of nurse Wubbels. The question arises if Detective Payne was obligated to follow the orders of his lieutenant.
The answer is that if the Detective believed that the order was unlawful, then he should have refused the order.
However, it is unlikely that Detective Payne believed that the order was unlawful.
If he had not been given an order to arrest Wubbels, Detective Payne would have had the discretion to leave her, and likely would have.
If Detective Payne believed that the order to arrest he was lawful, then he was obligated to follow the orders of his lieutenant.
Why Did This Happen?
We are getting deeper into the realm of speculation but it would be hard to infer any malicious intent from this incident.
The most likely cause of this incident is that Detective Payne believed that his actions were lawful, which would happen if he failed to receive training on case law updates. The Lieutenant then forced the incident to escalate by ordering an arrest of a nurse.
Police officers are responsible for being aware of well-established case law, and if it's determined that the arrest was unlawful, both Detective Payne, Lt. Tracy, and the department would be liable.
Wubbels' attorney has been in contact with the police department about training for officers, and officers have already begun to receive undated training. No lawsuit has been filed at this time.
The Salt Lake City Police Department has issued an apology over the incident.