In January, we talked about an important case out of Missouri that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether police officers can force a person suspected of DUI to submit to a blood test. Today, we bring you Depalis-Lachaud v. Noel, a case in the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 11th Circuit. It centers around a Florida nurse who was arrested after she refused an officer’s demand that she take blood from a man hospitalized after allegedly driving drunk and causing an accident.
Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy Kenneth Noel arrived at a local hospital shortly after 10 p.m. on June 17, 2009 to perform an intoxication assessment on a man who had been involved in a car crash earlier that evening. At some point, Noel approached the nurse’s station and asked Nurse Depalis-Lachaud to withdraw blood from the suspect so that it could be tested for alcohol content.
As Noel recalled, Depalis-Lachaud told him that the hospital “didn’t do that” and began to walk away. When he persisted, Depalis-Lachaud told Noel again that the hospital did not “do that for law enforcement.” Noel informed Depalis-Lachaud that he didn’t have time to wait for her to check with a supervisor and informed her that she would be violating the law by obstructing a police officer if she further declined to assist him. Depalis-Lachaud was arrested when she again refused to perform the blood withdrawal.
Depalis-Lachaud, on the other hand, claimed that she expressly told Noel that it was against hospital policy for her to withdraw blood for a police officer. Noel persisted and Depalis-Lachaud responded: “We’re waiting for the doctor. The doctor has to make that decision.” Noel refused to wait for chief emergency room physician to arrive, however, and instead arrested Depalis-Lachaud.
Noel later returned to the hospital, where another nurse on duty withdrew the blood for him.
Depalis-Lachaud sued Noel and the Sheriff’s office, alleging among other claims that he violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment by arresting her without probable cause. A trial court denied Noel’s motion for summary judgment on these claims and instead granted summary judgment to Depalis-Lachaud.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit agreed with the lower court that Noel was not entitled to summary judgment on the claims on the basis of qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity shields a government employee from liability where the person sued did not “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” the court explained.
Because Noel moved for summary judgment on the qualified immunity issue, the court was required to view the facts in the light most favorable to Depalis-Lachaud. Under this standard, the court ruled that Noel did not have actual or even arguable probable cause to arrest Depalis-Lachaud for obstruction, because she was simply following hospital policy by waiting for the physician in charge to arrive and handle the situation. Thus, Noel violated her clearly established right to be free of an unwarranted arrest and was not entitled to qualified immunity.
On the other hand, however, the court further ruled that Depalis-Lachaud also failed to show that she was entitled to summary judgment on the claims. Considering Depalis-Lachaud’s motion for summary judgment, the court was required to view the facts in the light most favorable to Noel. In his version of the events, Depalis-Lachaud refused to draw the blood and made no effort to contact a superior to seek authorization. Because Noel may have had probable cause to arrest under these circumstances, the court ruled that Depalis-Lachaud was also not entitled to summary judgment.
The intricacies of the summary judgment standard aside, this case is a good example of just how seriously law enforcement officers and health professionals take the issue of blood testing DUI suspects. It will likely take a Supreme Court ruling to finally put to rest the argument of whether cops can take a suspect’s blood without permission.
The South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine are experienced in handling Florida DUI cases throughout the region, including in Hialeah, Hollywood and Boca Raton. Contact us to schedule a free consultation.
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