Sheriff's Deputies Violated Nurses' Rights
By Demanding Blood Tests, Judge Rules
Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies have been violating the constitutional rights of nurses by threatening them with arrest if the hospital workers didn't draw blood from suspected drunken drivers, a federal magistrate has ruled.
In a case involving a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Riviera Beach, Magistrate James Hopkins said Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and any "officer of reasonable competence" should have realized they can't put a medical professional in handcuffs for refusing to conduct a blood test.
"The Sheriff's Department knew or should have known implementation of the policy would inevitably lead to violations of the Fourth Amendment for false arrest," Hopkins wrote in a 27-page opinion this month.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit VA nurse Marjorie DePalis-Lachaud filed last spring against the agency, two years after she was put in handcuffs and forced to sit in a patrol car after she explained to deputy Kenneth Noel that hospital policy prevented her from drawing blood without a doctor's order.
Hopkins rejected arguments by attorneys representing Noel and the department that DePalis-Lachaud's arrest was authorized by a 2008 letter written by then-Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer. In the unsigned letter, Krischer warned that "any nurse who refuses to draw blood when requested by a law enforcement officer is in violation of (state law) as actively obstructing a police officer in his lawful investigation."
Hopkins called the letter "woefully inadequate," saying he was troubled that Krischer offered no case law to back up his opinion. Further, he said, Krischer's assertion was not supported by the plain language of state statutes. State law clearly gives officers the authority to force a suspected drunken driver to submit to a blood test, but the law says a health care professional "may" draw blood at an officer's request. It doesn't require a nurse to do so.
"The court finds that the legal authority of the letter is uncertain and that a reasonable officer would have viewed it warily," Hopkins wrote. "An officer would be proceeding at his own peril, were he to place all his faith in a one-year-old, unsigned opinion letter that fails to cite any case law, as a foolproof blanket method of handling such situations."
Attorneys representing the sheriff's office didn't return phone calls for comment. At a court hearing, one said that the policy has been changed, said attorney Jean-Jacques Darius, who represents DePalis-Lachaud. Now, he said, emergency medical workers are "asked" to draw blood.
Hopkins' ruling allows DePalis-Lachaud to seek damages from the sheriff's office for violating her constitutional rights.
Darius said he also will pursue claims that Noel's actions were racially motivated because DePalis-Lachaud is black. Noel threatened a worker at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis with arrest in 2007 for refusing to draw blood from a DUI suspect. But instead of cuffing the white male nurse, Noel gave him a notice to appear in court. Ultimately, the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, as it did in DePalis-Lachaud's case, declined to prosecute the JFK nurse for obstruction of justice.
Rather than continue to litigate, Darius said, he is hopeful that the sheriff's office will be willing to settle the claims. Because he is suing a government agency, state law likely limits recovery to $100,000.
"Either way, if she continues to fight it or if it's settled, it's a positive," Darius said. "We got a policy changed."