Salt Lake City Nurse and the Blood Draw Question

By Faye Higbee

Logan, Utah – A police pursuit ended in a head on collision with a semi and caused an explosion. The pursuit suspect, Marco Torres, 26, died at the scene. the semi driver, William Gray, exited his vehicle while he was on fire and had to be taken to a Salt Lake City hospital in an unconscious state for treatment. That’s where things went awry.

Nurse Alex Wubbels calmly explained to Detective Jeff Payne at the beginning that hospital protocol and agreement with the police did not allow a warrantless blood draw from a patient who was unconscious and not under arrest.

Detective Payne contacted his watch commander, Lt. James Tracy, and was told to arrest her for interfering with an investigation. In the video, she screamed “Help me!” as she was led off in handcuffs.

Here is the video of the incident:

Wubbels was later released with no charges, and an internal investigation has begun at the Sal Lake City Police department. Detective Payne has been placed on administrative leave. Wubbels says she may press charges depending upon the outcome of the investigation.

Detective Payne, by the way, is a trained phlebotomist- one who can draw blood. But could he legally take the blood where the person was not in custody? Unlikely.

Blue Lives Matter reported some information on the possibilities in this situation:

“In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (Birchfield v North Dakota) that while breath samples were minimally invasive and did not require a warrant, blood samples did require a warrant.

Prior to the case in 2016, there was no clear guidance to law enforcement which said that blood draws required warrants, and warrantless blood draws could have been legal under a search incident to arrest or implied consent laws.

So a warrant is always required, right? Not exactly. There are multiple exceptions to any search warrant requirement. The two exceptions for blood draws are consent and exigent circumstances.

Gray was incapable of giving his consent, so that was off of the table.

That leaves exigency as the only possible exception in this case. The most common argument for exigency in a blood draw is that the drugs or alcohol, in a person’s blood, may significantly dissipate in the time that it takes to get a warrant.

Case law on this is mixed around the country, with some jurisdictions allowing for it and others prohibiting it. The U.S. Supreme court specifically left the exigency argument open in Birchfield v North Dakota.

Does that mean that Detective Payne could have completed a legal blood draw without a warrant. Possibly, except for one thing; Gray wasn’t under arrest, which suggests that there was no probable cause.

If there were no reasonable grounds to believe that Gray may have been impaired by drugs or alcohol, then a warrantless blood draw would have required consent.

Based on established case law, it appears unlikely that the search of Gray’s person would have been lawful.”

The Salt Lake City Police Department has issued an apology for the situation. The Logan Police had asked SLC if they would get a blood sample for them, which is standard in the case of a traffic accident involving death. But this case went awry quickly, and whether from lack of proper training or lack of knowledge of department protocols, it didn’t go smoothly.

The internal investigation is ongoing.