Editorial: Bleeding our constitutional rights dry

The Orange County Register
Guest Editorial


The Utah police officer who arrested a nurse for refusing to allow him to draw blood from an unconscious patient without a warrant sparked righteous outrage, but many other Fourth Amendment violations deserve similar condemnation.

After 43-year-old William Gray was severely injured in a head-on collision with a pickup truck that had veered into opposing traffic during a police chase, he was transported to University of Utah Hospital, where he was listed in critical condition with severe burns. This is where the story takes a strange — and shocking — turn.

Salt Lake City Police Det. Jeff Payne, operating under orders from police in neighboring Logan and his watch commander, Lt. James Tracy, demanded to draw blood from Gray to check for illegal drugs. Payne said that he wanted to “protect” Gray, presumably by proving that no drugs were in his system, which is a bizarre claim, considering that Gray had done nothing wrong, was not suspected of committing any crime, and was, in fact, the victim in all this.

Head nurse Alex Wubbels then stepped in and calmly informed Payne that hospital policy prevented such a blood draw because the officer did not have a warrant and the patient was not under arrest and could not give consent (since he was unconscious at the time). A supervisor confirmed the hospital’s policy and the nurse’s decision over a speakerphone.

Nonetheless, Payne threatened to arrest the nurse if she did not accede to his demands. “I either go away with blood in vials or body in tow,” he told her.

When she refused to relent, a frustrated and enraged Payne then reached for Wubbels’ phone, shouted, “We’re done!” placed her under arrest, and roughly grabbed Wubbels, spinning her around, thrusting her out the hospital doors and handcuffing her up against the wall, as the distraught Wubbels shrieked, “Help! Help me! Stop! You’re assaulting me! Stop! I’ve done nothing wrong! This is crazy! … Why is he [Payne] so angry?” She was placed in a patrol car, but eventually released without being charged with any crime.

Wubbels later obtained and released police body camera footage of the incident, whereupon it quickly went viral. The case illustrates the importance of the video evidence that police body cams provide, yet, just last week, Salt Lake Police Association head Stephen Hartney criticized the city for releasing the video before the completion of an investigation, despite the fact that state law entitles Wubbels to acquire it.

Too many police unions have successfully implemented rules that restrict the release of body cam videos, or allow officers to view the footage before providing their official statements, which may allow them to change their stories to fit the evidence.

“Public pressure and response is important to holding police officers accountable,” Scott Shackford notes in a recent Reason.com article. “They are public servants, and Hartney’s responses, like we’ve seen from other police union leaders, misuse the concept of due process to try to conceal information from the people to whom the police are supposed to answer.”

Public outrage over the nurse’s arrest was certainly justified. Sadly, too many violations of our property (in this case, one’s own blood) and our Fourth Amendment rights — from illegal searches to civil asset forfeiture abuses — go unnoticed. That makes it all the more important to celebrate the cases where individuals heroically stand up to unchecked and unjustified authority to protect the rights of the helpless and the innocent.

— The Orange County Register, Oct. 3