Utah Nurse Arrested for Protecting Patient Privacy

Story about police cover-up turns to abuse

by Andrew Millman

Staff Fuck the Police

In July, Alex Wubbels, a Utah nurse, refused to allow local police officers to take blood from an unconscious patient, who had been admitted to the burn unit after a car crash. The nurse, who ran the burn unit, repeatedly rejected a detective’s attempts to acquire the blood sample, citing hospital and police department policy. The shared policy required that one of their criteria be met before the hospital would hand over a patient’s blood reports: a court order, an arrest, or patient consent. The patient was not under arrest and he was unconscious, so he could not give his consent. The Supreme Court also recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to draw blood without consent or a warrant. Nevertheless, the detective and other officers became insistent on acquiring the evidence and tensions mounted, eventually resulting in the arrest of the nurse. The body-cam video of the nurse cornered by several officers, before being manhandled and dragged to a waiting police car quickly went viral. As a result, the incident has come under increased scrutiny.

The arrest video was horrific enough and a blatant abuse of police power, but the larger context for the incident is even more troubling. The detective wasn’t just ignoring procedure because he was lazy. The episode was part of a bungled cover-up attempt. The patient was an innocent bystander who was injured during a high-speed police chase, which went against the department’s policy, instituted to protect civilians. Due to the officers’ reckless actions, someone got hurt and both the officers and the department were now legally liable. The cops wanted the patient’s blood to find something that they could use in court to exonerate themselves or muddy the issue, even though the accident was clearly their fault. The detective didn’t seek a warrant from a judge because he knew there was no probable cause that would merit one being issues, as the patient was not a suspect. Within a day, the police department internally reviewed the body-cam footage, but did nothing until the video went viral and caused widespread outrage.

This one incident contained three cases of abuse of power by the police. First, the cops engaged in a high-speed chase against departmental guidelines, probably to fulfill some fantasy about being in a stupid action movie. The accident that resulted from the chase ended in the death of the fleeing suspect and injury of an innocent bystander. Second, the police demanded the private medical records of an unconscious victim with no legal right to do so. They tried to bluster their way to violate a citizen’s privacy exclusively through the authority of their positions. Third, the officers arrested a nurse, who was just doing her job and protecting her patient’s rights, with no legal basis. Then, after the incident, the department officials responsible for overseeing the actions of their fellow officers found nothing wrong with any of it, proving that it wasn’t just a few rogue cops, but a more systemic problem. Overall, throughout the entire ordeal, every individual police officer involved chose to do the wrong thing.

The whole police department acted corruptly, but the incident is useful because it is emblematic of how departments across the country act to protect their own instead of upholding the law. It is perfectly fine and probably necessary for police officers to be fiercely loyal to their coworkers, but that loyalty should stop when it requires violating citizens’ constitutional and legal rights. Unfortunately, as countless recent incidents have shown, this is often not the case. This horrible incident, like many others, could have been prevented if just one officer chose to act differently.

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