Health Privacy vs. Police: Utah Nurse Arrested for Standing Up for Patient’s Rights

Sep 5, 2017 | Blog

Health privacy took a blow, literally, when Nurse Alex Wubbels was arrested in Salt Lake City, Utah on July 26, 2017 for refusing to allow a police officer to draw blood from an unconscious patient.  She was not charged and was released shortly thereafter, but the damage had been done, in a number of ways.

Standoffs between police officer seeking information about patients and caregivers who are required by HIPAA to safeguard the rights of those in their care have happened before, but rarely have they come to physical confrontation. Here, the patient was brought to the University of Utah’s Burn Unit unconscious and badly burned after his vehicle was hit by a suspect fleeing a crime scene (the suspect died).  The unconscious patient was not under arrest and was not a suspect in the incident that led to the collision.

Salt Lake City Detective Jeff Payne arrived at the Burn Unit and demanded to be permitted to take a blood sample from the patient “to check for illicit substances.” Nurse Wubbels, the head nurse on the Burn Unit, citing hospital policy and showing the detective a copy of the pertinent provisions of hospital policy, refused to allow him to do so, as the patient was unconscious and could not consent, and Detective Payne had neither a court order nor a warrant. A warrant would require a showing of probable cause and Detective Payne, when asked why he didn’t just apply for a warrant stated simply, “There’s no probable cause.” The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in Birchfield v. North Dakotathat warrantless blood tests are a violation of the patient’s constitutional rights. HIPAA and the laws of several states also severely limit information hospitals may disclosure to law enforcement. HIPAA requires a court order or warrant for disclosure of lab results to the police (except in circumstances noted in the rules that did not apply here).

Detective Payne, upon orders from his lieutenant to arrest the nurse, pushed Nurse Wubbels against a wall, handcuffed her, told her she was under arrest for obstruction of justice and put her into an unmarked car. She was released a short time later and not charged. A video of the incident was made and has been posted, and is chilling to healthcare providers. Following the incident, Detective Payne was suspended from the police blood draw unit. As of the date of the article linked above, Nurse Wubbels had not instituted legal action against the Salt Law City Police Department.

If you have questions regarding caregivers’ obligations and responsibilities when confronted with law enforcement requests to draw blood or obtain patient information, please contact Kenneth N. Rashbaum.