Federal Judge Rules Palm Beach Sheriff's Deputies Can't Be Handcuffing Nurses All Willy-Nilly

A federal judge has found that the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office "had a policy of threatening hospital staff" who refused when ordered by police to take blood samples in DUI cases, finding that "this policy directly impacted the Fourth Amendment rights of hospital employees... 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."

In June 2009, it did. And now a lawsuit against PBSO for more than $75,000 is going to trial.

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Marjorie Depalis-Lachaud was working as a nurse at a Palm Beach Veterans Administration hospital when a man came in with injuries from a car accident. Shortly after, Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Noel came in and interviewed the man. Noel suspected the man was driving drunk, and he wanted to get a blood sample to prove it.

At 10:30, he came to the nurses' station and told them he needed them to take a blood sample from the man. Two nurses told him hospital policy stated they could take blood from patients only when told to by a doctor. Depalis-Lachaud says she consulted with a supervisor and told Noel they were "waiting for the doctor to see if he gives an order to get the blood."

Noel didn't like that answer and handcuffed Depalis-Lachaud over what she claims were the protests of pretty much every official at the hospital. He said she was obstructing his investigation. She was never prosecuted.

Noel says he was relying on a 2008 letter from the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office saying nurses are required to draw blood when asked. Depalis-Lachaud said the state attorney doesn't get to decide when police are allowed to violate the Fourth Amendment.

The judge agreed with Depalis-Lachaud: "The legal authority of the letter is uncertain," he wrote, pointing out that it was a form letter that wasn't signed and didn't cite any case law. "A reasonable officer would have viewed it warily."

As for the content of what the judged called "the woefully inadequate opinion letter," he points out that although officers are allowed to compel blood samples from DUI suspects injured in crashes, "nothing in this statute requires a medical worker to obtain a blood sample from a DUI suspect or specifically gives an officer the authority to take such a sample." In other words: It's wrong.

Depalis-Lachaud's lawyer told the Palm Beach Post that the policy of forcing nurses to extract blood has since been changed and that now they are only "asked" to draw it.

In any case, the judge found that "a reasonable officer would not have believed there was probable cause to arrest" Depalis-Lachaud, and a jury trial has been set for July 9 to assess Depalis-Lachaud's claims of violations of the Fourteenth Amendment and her request for $75,000 in damages plus costs.

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