State v. Rheaume (2004-166); 179 Vt. 39; 889 A.2d 711
2005 VT 106
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
2005 VT 106
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.
FOR THE COURT:
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.