Utah police have released a disturbing video of officers handcuffing and arresting a Salt Lake City nurse for refusing to obey a clearly unconstitutional order. The body camera footage, which shows Detective Jeff Payne arresting the nurse — whose name is Alex Wubbels — for refusing to allow the officer to draw blood from an unconscious patient without a warrant.
According to the Washington Post, Payne has been suspended from the department’s blood draw unit, and Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown called the video “very alarming.” Nonetheless, Payne remains on active duty pending an inquiry.
Wubbels has retained an attorney, but states at this time that she does not want to sue the police; rather, she wants to make sure the police department is properly trained to avoid incidents like hers in the future.
Why the confrontation occurred
According to the Deseret News, the confrontation occurred July 26 after a car crash that followed a high-speed police chase. A vehicle driven by an unnamed suspect was fleeing from police in Cache County when it crossed into on coming traffic and suffered a head-on collision with a truck. The suspect was killed in the crash, and the truck driver was taken to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. The truck driver was severely burned in the crash, so he was sedated and admitted to the hospital’s burn unit.
For reasons that are not immediately clear — the truck driver was not suspected of a crime and the suspect was deceased — Payne was ordered by his supervisors to obtain a blood sample from the truck driver and to arrest anyone who attempted to interfere.
There was only one problem: Payne had no warrant, lacked probable cause to get a warrant, and the truck driver was unconscious and thus could not consent to having his blood drawn. That led to the dramatic confrontation caught on video:
In the video, which was captured by the bodycam of another officer who was present, Wubbels can be seen patiently and professionally explaining to Payne that without a warrant, she cannot allow him to draw blood from an unconscious patient. Wubbels additionally enlisted the help of a supervisor and hospital officials, who confirmed that it was both contrary to hospital policy and illegal for Payne to draw blood from this patient without a warrant.
Throughout the series of phone calls, Payne grows increasingly agitated at having his authority questioned and repeatedly threatens to arrest Wubbels. At one point, Wubbels’ supervisor asks Payne to stop threatening a nurse who is trying to do her job, at which point Payne visibly loses his temper, slaps the phone out of Wubbels’ hand, and begins to handcuff and arrest her.
In the video, Wubbels exclaims as she is being arrested, “This is crazy. This is crazy. Why is he so angry?”
What the law says
In June 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring drivers to submit to a blood test without a warrant was unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito reasoned that, unlike breathalyzer tests, blood tests are sufficiently invasive that without a warrant, they constitute an “unreasonable search” and thus violate the Fourth Amendment. The court held that this is true even when a driver is lawfully arrested for drunk driving:
Blood tests are significantly more intrusive, and their reasonableness must be judged in light of the availability of the less invasive alternative of a breath test. Respondents have offered no satisfactory justification for demanding the more intrusive alternative without a warrant. …
Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement interests, we conclude that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving.
Notably, the court rejected an approach favored by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, writing in dissent, who would have permitted police to engage in a case-by-case analysis. The court’s reasoning was thus clear: Police must obtain either a warrant or consent before drawing a suspect’s blood sample.
How the law applies here
In this case, the truck driver was not even a suspect in the case. The police had no probable cause to obtain a warrant for his blood because he was not suspected of doing anything wrong. And because he was unconscious, he was legally incapable of giving consent.
And while a patient is unconscious and in the care of a hospital, the hospital can be held legally liable if they allow patients in their care to have their rights violated — including by police.
Following Payne’s illegal order thus could have subjected both Wubbels and the hospital to a lawsuit.
What it means
Payne was a police phlebotomist, which means that his main job function was to draw blood samples for his police department. It is troubling, at the very least, that someone whose primary job is to draw blood samples for the police would not know that the law requires police officers to obtain a warrant or consent before drawing blood.
Watching the video, it seems clear that Payne was simply unwilling to accept that someone would question his orders, no matter how reasonable or polite they were being — or how correct they were, as a matter of law. The fact that such an individual remains on active duty in spite of a troubling attitude and complete ignorance of clear constitutional limits on his authority is troubling to civil libertarians. Part of protecting good, responsible police is holding bad, power-hungry police officers to account so that the citizenry maintains faith in the overall good will of their local police department.
What comes next
Wubbels was ultimately released without being criminally charged, but she plans to fight to prevent others from being intimidated or arrested for refusing to follow illegal orders from police.
Wubbels maintains that for now, she does not want to sue, she wants to make a point. According to the Deseret News, when asked if she planned to sue, she said:
I think right now, I believe in the goodness of society. I want to see people do the right thing first and I want to see this be a civil discourse. And if that’s not something that’s going to happen and there is refusal to acknowledge the need for growth and the need for re-education, then we will likely be forced to take that type of step. But people need to know that this is out there.