State v. Rheaume

Annotate this Case
State v. Rheaume (2004-166); 179 Vt. 39; 889 A.2d 711

2005 VT 106

[Filed 26-Aug-2005]


       NOTICE:  This opinion is subject to motions for reargument under
  V.R.A.P. 40 as well as formal revision before publication in the Vermont
  Reports.  Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions,
  Vermont Supreme Court, 109 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05609-0801 of
  any errors in order that corrections may be made before this opinion goes
  to press.


                                 2005 VT 106

                                No. 2004-166


  State of Vermont	                         Supreme Court

                                                 On Appeal from
       v.	                                 District Court of Vermont,
                                                 Unit No. 3, Franklin Circuit

  Adam Rheaume	                                 April Term, 2005


  Michael S. Kupersmith, J.

  William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and John Treadwell, Assistant
    Attorney General, Montpelier for Plaintiff-Appellee.

  Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, Henry Hinton, Appellate Defender, and
    Dawn Matthews, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.


  PRESENT:  Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Johnson, Skoglund, JJ., and 
            Allen, C.J. (Ret.),  Specially Assigned

       ¶  1.  SKOGLUND, J.   Defendant Adam Rheaume entered a conditional
  plea of guilty to the charge of driving under the influence of intoxicating
  liquor (first offense) in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201.  Pursuant to the
  conditional plea, defendant preserved the right to appeal solely on the
  issue of whether a law enforcement officer's warrantless entry into the
  treatment area in a hospital emergency room violated defendant's rights
  under Chapter 1, Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution.  We hold that
  defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the
  hospital's emergency room treatment area.  Accordingly, we affirm the
  ruling of the trial court. 
   
       ¶  2.  On May 19, 2002, defendant was involved in a single-car
  accident in the Town of Highgate and was transported to the Northwest
  Medical Center in St. Albans for treatment of his injuries.  Rescue
  personnel at the scene of the accident informed State Trooper Jeffrey Smith
  that defendant was likely intoxicated.  Trooper Smith then proceeded to the
  nurses' station in the hospital's emergency department, where he asked for
  permission to see defendant.  The hospital's official written policy
  considers law enforcement officers to be "authorized personnel" who are
  permitted access into the emergency room as long as their presence does not
  interfere with ongoing treatment of a patient.  In addition to doctors,
  nurses, and patients, clerical staff, housekeeping staff, facilities staff,
  family, and other agencies may also be present in the emergency room area.

       ¶  3.  The nurse on duty directed Trooper Smith to the "trauma room,"
  which is located within the emergency room roughly fifteen to twenty feet
  from the nurses' station and consists of two patient beds that can be
  separated by a curtain.  The door to the trauma room was open, and Trooper
  Smith entered without asking defendant's permission.  Defendant was lying
  on a gurney.  Trooper Smith observed cuts to defendant's lip and tongue, as
  well as gauze wrapped around his bleeding hands.
   
       ¶  4.  After informing defendant of his Miranda rights, Trooper
  Smith asked defendant if he would be willing to discuss the accident. 
  Defendant refused to speak with the officer because he was in too much
  pain.  Trooper Smith then advised defendant of his rights under the implied
  consent law and asked defendant to provide a blood sample.  Defendant
  refused, and Trooper Smith then cited defendant for DUI.  At some point
  before defendant was removed from the trauma room for X-rays, he yelled out
  that he knew the officer was there to give him a DUI and that he would not
  have been drinking and driving were it not for a fight at a party he
  attended before the accident.  Defendant was not responding to any question
  by the officer when he made that exclamation.

       ¶  5.  Defendant moved to suppress his emergency room statements and
  to exclude his refusal to submit to a blood test, asserting violations of
  both Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the
  United States Constitution.  The court denied the motion.  Defendant
  entered into a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal on
  constitutional privacy grounds, with the stipulation that he would be
  permitted to withdraw his plea if the Supreme Court reversed on appeal. 
  Defendant then filed this appeal. 

       ¶  6.  On appeal from a denial of a motion to suppress, this Court
  applies a deferential standard of review to the trial court's findings of
  fact.  State v. Lawrence, 2003 VT 68, ¶ 8, 175 Vt. 600, 819 A.2d 719
  (mem.).  If the findings of fact are not clearly erroneous, we then review
  the legal issues de novo.  Id. ¶¶ 8-9.  Under the clearly erroneous
  standard, we will "uphold the court's factual findings unless, taking
  evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, and excluding
  the effect of modifying evidence, there is no reasonable or credible
  evidence to support them."  Mann v. Levin, 2004 VT 100, ¶ 17, 177 Vt. 261,
  861 A.2d 1138.  Because the trial court's findings are supported by the
  evidence, we proceed to the legal issues.

       ¶  7.  As a preliminary matter, we note that on appeal defendant
  asserts only a violation of his right to privacy under Article 11 of the
  Vermont Constitution.  He does not raise an argument under the Fourth
  Amendment to the United States Constitution. 
   
       ¶  8.  Like the Fourth Amendment, Article 11 protects the "right to be
  free from unreasonable government intrusions into legitimate expectations
  of privacy."  State v. Welch, 160 Vt. 70, 76, 624 A.2d 1105, 1108 (1992);
  accord State v. Kirchoff, 156 Vt. 1, 6, 587 A.2d 988, 992 (1991). (FN1) 
  Under Article 11, the question of whether an individual has a legitimate
  expectation of privacy "hinges on the essence of underlying constitutional
  values-including respect for both private, subjective expectations and
  public norms."  State v. Blow, 157 Vt. 513, 517-18, 602 A.2d 552, 555
  (1991).  Accordingly, Article 11 requires "first that a person ha[s]
  exhibited an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and, second, that
  the expectation be one that society is prepared to recognize as
  'reasonable.' "  Id. at 517, 602 A.2d  at 555 (alteration in original)
  (quoting Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 361 (1967) (Harlan, J.,
  concurring)).  In other words, in order to invoke Article 11's protection,
  a defendant must have "conveyed an expectation of privacy in such a way
  that a reasonable person would conclude that he sought to exclude the
  public."  Id.; accord State v. Hayes, 170 Vt. 618, 619, 752 A.2d 16, 18
  (2000) (mem.); Kirchoff, 156 Vt. at 10, 587 A.2d  at 994.  "Whether the
  steps taken are adequate for this purpose will depend on the specific facts
  of each case."  Kirchoff, 156 Vt. at 10, 587 A.2d  at 994.
               
       ¶  9.  Here, defendant has not demonstrated that he had a subjective
  expectation that no law enforcement officer would enter the emergency room
  without his consent.  When Trooper Smith arrived at the emergency
  department, the door to defendant's trauma room was open.  Once the officer
  entered the trauma room, defendant did not ask him to leave or suggest the
  room was private or inaccessible in any way.  Defendant did not attempt to
  leave or limit contact with the officer. Moreover, defendant made the
  incriminating statements voluntarily-indeed, he blurted them out without
  having been questioned by the officer.  There is no evidence that defendant
  manifested any subjective expectation of privacy in the treatment room.
   
       ¶  10.  Nor has defendant demonstrated that society recognizes an
  objective, reasonable expectation of privacy in the emergency treatment
  area of a hospital, which, "by its very nature, functions as a freely
  accessible area over which a patient has no control and where his privacy
  is diminished."  State v. Stott, 794 A.2d 120, 127 (N.J. 2002).  We have
  consistently held that a person cannot rely on constitutional search and
  seizure provisions "to protect areas or activities that have been willingly
  exposed to the public."  Geraw, 173 Vt. at 352, 795 A.2d  at 1221.  While it
  is true that the public at large may not freely access the emergency area,
  medical personnel, hospital staff, patients and their families, and
  emergency workers-including police officers-are, as a matter of course,
  frequently, and not unexpectedly, moving through the area.  Unlike a
  private hotel room, United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 51-52 (1951), a
  private business office, O'Connor v. Ortega, 480 U.S. 709, 718-19 (1987),
  or a private hospital room, Morris v. Commonwealth, 157 S.E.2d 191, 194
  (Va. 1967), an emergency treatment area, or a "trauma room" located
  therein, is, for purposes of constitutional privacy protections, "public"
  and can afford no reasonable expectation of privacy.  See, e.g., Matthews
  v. Commonwealth, 517 S.E.2d 263, 264 (Va. Ct. App. 1999) (holding that
  defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in a treatment room
  within the emergency ward); accord Buchanan v. State, 432 So. 2d 147, 148
  (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1983); People v. Torres, 494 N.E.2d 752, 755 (Ill.
  App. Ct. 1986); State v. Thompson, 585 N.W.2d 905, 911 (Wis. Ct. App.
  1998).  Against this background, a patient undergoing treatment for only a
  brief period of time cannot reasonably expect either to restrict access to
  the area, or to control whether other patients, their families, or the
  other categories of personnel mentioned above are present in the area. 
  Therefore, defendant did not enjoy an objective, reasonable expectation of
  privacy in the emergency ward treatment room, where "conversations are
  subject to the eyes and ears of passersby."  State v. Brooks, 157 Vt. 490,
  493, 601 A.2d 963, 964 (1991). 

       ¶  11.  Defendant argues that Article 11 should provide occupants of
  an emergency room treatment area a privacy interest commensurate with that
  afforded individuals in their homes.  We have recognized that the home
  "represents a unique historical category with 'special expectations of
  privacy' warranting the strongest constitutional protection from
  warrantless searches and seizures."  Geraw, 173 Vt. at 354, 795 A.2d  at
  1222 (quoting State v. Morris, 165 Vt. 111, 133, 680 A.2d 90, 105 (1996)
  (Dooley, J., dissenting)).  In light of the above analysis, we see no
  reason why defendant's privacy expectations in these circumstances should
  be coextensive with those enjoyed in the home.  Accordingly, the trial
  court correctly denied defendant's motion to suppress.

       Affirmed. 


                                       FOR THE COURT:



                                       _______________________________________
                                       Associate Justice


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                                  Footnotes


FN1.  While both provisions protect this same "core value," Kirchoff, 156
  Vt. at 6, 587 A.2d  at 992, "our Article 11 jurisprudence has diverged from
  the United States Supreme Court's analysis of the Fourth Amendment," Welch,
  160 Vt. at 76, 624 A.2d  at 1108.  Specifically, we have recognized that
  Article 11 affords individuals greater privacy rights than its federal
  counterpart in certain circumstances.  See, e.g., State v. Geraw, 173 Vt.
  350, 353 n.2, 357-58, 795 A.2d 1219, 1222 n.2, 1225 (2002) (holding that
  police may not secretly record conversation in suspect's home without a
  warrant.); State v. Savva, 159 Vt. 75, 79, 87-88, 616 A.2d 774, 776, 780-81
  (1992) (recognizing higher privacy expectation under Article 11 in contents
  of closed containers in automobile's interior than in objects inside
  automobile in plain view); Kirchoff, 156 Vt. at 10, 587 A.2d  at 994
  (extending privacy rights in "open fields" beyond scope of federal
  protection).  Thus, we note that the outcome of this case would not change
  even if defendant had raised a Fourth Amendment argument in this appeal.