St. Francis Hospital and the 4th Amendment

UPDATE – JUNE 27, 2012 @ 4:55P.M.

When I posted this particular entry, I forwarded the link to various individuals that I thought should be aware of the situation.  This afternoon I received a call from Col. Randy Warden, Chief Deputy of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department.  Col. Warden had followed up on my comments, and checked to see if in fact any of the deputies of the Sheriff’s Department were working or assigned to work at St. Francis Hospital.  He assured me that after a thorough check; both internally, and with the hospital, that NONE of his deputies were in fact involved with this situation.  To the men and women of the JCSD, I offer my humblest apologies, and I am grateful that none of the officers that patrol Johnson County would be so dismissive of our constitutional rights.

On a personal note, I have, in my past profession, worked with many officers from JCSD, the Greenwood PD, and other departments in Johnson County.  They have always been professional, courteous, well trained and disciplined.  That is why the situation at St. Francis was such a shock to me.

Again, I stand corrected, and thank Col. Warden for his diligence and time.

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I have two friends, who for the sake of their privacy, I will call George and Martha, which I have known for several years.  They are the best of friends, and have been for a long time.  While they have never been intimate, they are like an old married couple; knowing each other’s secrets, arguing to the point where one will walk out to cool off, and the other pouting until apologies are made and the situation rectified.  While they can be annoying at times, they are still close friends of mine, and I mostly enjoy their company.  George is ten years my junior, having just turned 43 a few months ago.   Martha is a few years younger than George, but I won’t share her exact age for fear of reprisal.

Several years ago George was diagnosed with a rare kidney disorder, one that has now led to end stage renal failure.  He has been told by his doctors that he is not a candidate for a transplant, and that his condition is terminal.  It is difficult to watch as you know a friend is going to eventually die from a disease that there is no known cure.  George was on hemodialysis for a while, but the line that was inserted into his body kept getting blocked with blood clots and fibrous tissues.  This made it so that the doctors were having to do surgery every week or two to clear the blockage, and left George in pain and misery.  They switched him to a dialysis program were a set of tubes were inserted into his stomach and he would do his dialysis at home.  Peritoneal dialysis (PD) is an effective method in the treatment of renal failure, and patients can live a “normal” life for a long time.  However, with George there is a complication.  A number of years ago he had bariatric surgery reducing the size of his stomach, and this has caused complications in his use of PD.  The tubes were inserted too deeply into the abdomen, and when George drains the solution the tube sometimes sucks up portions of the abdominal lining.  This causes great pain, and had led to several bouts of peritonitis, and extended stays at the hospital.

George has two sisters; I’ll call Dolly and Abigail.  Both are sweet women; both are married, and Dolly has two children.  Both also claim to have a personal faith in Jesus, and are active in their churches and with their own families.  They are so active with their church and families that they have little time for their own brother.  When George gets sick, he doesn’t call on either of his sisters to take him to the hospital, but rather calls on his longtime friend Martha to take him to the hospital.  Being the dutiful friend, she will drop whatever she is doing and take him to the ER.  Martha will spend hours and days at George’s side while doctors try and figure out what to do next.  She truly is the epitome of the loyal and devoted friend.

George generally goes to St. Francis Hospital in Greenwood, IN.  He had received treatment at Wishard Hospital, but was uncomfortable with the doctors and his treatment.  Once he was determined to be permanently disabled due to his medical condition, he was eligible for Medicare, and changed hospitals.  This is where the real story begins.

Neither George nor Martha have much education beyond high school, but they have a street smarts and wisdom that often fails the college graduate.  George’s father had been a police officer, so George is somewhat familiar with the ins and outs of what the police can do.  Several weeks ago George became sick, and Martha took him to St. Francis for treatment.  It has gotten to be a regular routine, these hospital visits, and the staff is getting familiar with George.  Unfortunately, George is one of those people that does not suffer fools gladly, and when confronted with some person, or worse, some staff member that is acting like a fool, he will revert to what he knows, and that is his street sense.  During his last stay at St. Francis Hospital, he had such an experience.

Statue of St. Francis.
Photo by J. Ordower

Both George and Martha are lifelong smokers, and when he has one of his medical issues crop up, and is hospitalized he has to suffer through the pain of withdrawal from nicotine.  If the doctors remember, they will order some nicotine substitute for him while he is confined to his bed.  However, there have been many occasions where that order is not placed.  When he has had enough of trying to deal with his withdrawal, he will sneak out of his room and find his way outside to grab a few hits off a cigarette.  Since his conditions have led to him always being in an isolation room, he is prone to infections, when he does sneak out it is obvious to the nursing staff.  This has led to several confrontations with St. Francis’ staff, and more than a few choice words coming from George’s mouth.

During his last stay at St. Francis, Martha had come to spend the day with him, and offer some cheer and company.  She is the only one that will visit him regularly while he is confined.  I have stopped in for a visit, but my basic fear of hospitals, coupled with the problems I have in getting around make it difficult for me to visit, though I will call and give him hard time.  During one of Martha’s visits a nurse, accompanied by two Johnson County Sheriff’s deputies came to George’s room.  He was sitting at his computer playing a game, and Martha was sitting on the bed talking to him.  The nurse and deputies came into the room demanding to know where George was hiding his cigarettes.  The deputies started to search through his personal belongings, and search through Martha’s bag.

When they were asked what they were doing, the senior deputy replied that they were looking for contraband that had been smuggled into the hospital.  When further asked what the officers meant, they told George and Martha that they were looking for cigarettes and lighters.  Under Indiana law, IC 35-44-3-9.3, the contraband definition applies only to a person that is in the custody of the state or a local detention facility.  I can hardly see a hospital as being a detention facility, especially since George was not under the jurisdiction/supervision of any court or detention facility.  He was in fact a “paying” customer of the hospital.  The deputies started to look through Martha’s bag, and that is when memories of George’s father came to the forefront.  George asked if the deputies had a warrant to search Martha’s personal property, or any probable cause to believe that there was in fact illegal or dangerous items in Martha’s possessions.  As of this writing, cigarettes and lighters are still legally purchased and possessed items, and therefore cannot be construed as “contraband” unless they meet the Indiana codes definition, ie being in some form of a correctional facility.

Under the color of authority these two officers, aided by a nurse that had personal issues with George, engaged in a violation of George’s and Martha’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The text of the Fourth Amendment reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

While I agree that a hospital has the right to ban smoking on their property, that does not negate the Fourth Amendment’s protections.   Neither George nor Martha were smoking in the hospital.  If Martha did in fact have cigarettes in her personal property on the hospital grounds, that can hardly be construed as “contraband” or her possession of cigarettes in George’s room be considered as “smuggling.”

I am a very vocal supporter of law enforcement, having spent the majority of my adult life working in that very field.  However, these officers and the nurse engaged in a very serious violation of two people’s rights to be secure in their property and possessions.  Either St. Francis Hospital’s staff thinks that a patient surrenders those rights when admitted, or the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department’s deputies have no understanding of what constitutionally protected rights are.  In either case, the hospital and the sheriff’s department are treading on some very thin ice, and need to teach their staff and deputies what the law is.

Unless a patient is hospitalized under a court order, or transfer order from a correctional facility, the patient does not surrender their rights to privacy.  I would encourage both the hospital and the sheriff’s department to do some remedial training of its staff so that this type of violation does not happen again.

As a side note to the situation with George and this illegal attempt to search, it so enraged him that he and his best friend would have to tolerate this abuse of power that he got out of his bed, going off on the deputies, pulling IVs out of his arm and threatening to leave St. Francis Hospital.  When he jerked out the IV, blood started to spurt out of his arm, and Martha, not the nurse that caused the problems, tried to get the bleeding stopped and get George to calm down.

I personally am a patient of Wishard Hospital, the local public hospital, and have been told repeatedly that I would be better served by going to another medical facility.  However, after George and Martha’s experience with St. Francis, I know that I will never be a patient of that particular hospital.  My health be damned, my rights are more important to me than medical treatment.

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About Joseph Ordower

I'm a middle aged, some would say curmudgeon, who is sick, tired and truly frustrated with the way things are going in a country (America) that he loves, honors and respects.
This entry was posted in Fourth Amendment, Illness, Incompetence, Medical Profession, Public healthcare, St. Francis Hospital, Wishard Hospital and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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