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Searches of Hospital Patients, Their Rooms and Belongings

December 9, 2012

Searches of Hospital Patients, Their Rooms and Belongings (PDF)

Source: Health Care Law Monthly

As demonstrated by news events this year, hospitals are unfortunately not immune to the risks of weapons or contraband being brought onto hospital premises. In just one month this year (June 2012), the media reported three separate hospital incidents. First, in Texas, a former patient entered a hospital emergency department allegedly demanding pain killers. When his request was denied, he reportedly took several hospital staff members hostage at gunpoint. The police arrived at the hospital but negotiations with the gunman proved unsuccessful; he was shot and killed by police. That same month, in New York, a surgeon allegedly brought a gun to the hospital where he worked and killed a hospital receptionist. The surgeon later reportedly committed suicide. Also in June 2012, a British hospital patient was reportedly found with illegal drugs. Hospital staff suspected the patient was taking the drugs after observing him behave erratically. The patient was later charged with possession of illegal drugs. As described by The Joint Commission in a Sentinel Event Alert, hospitals were once considered ‘‘safe havens’’ but ‘‘as criminal activity spills over from the streets onto the campuses and through the doors,’’ hospitals face particular challenges in securing the building and grounds ‘‘[b]ecause hospitals are open to the public around the clock every day of the year.’’ These challenges are especially difficult in hightraffic areas which have high-stress levels, such as the emergency department.

This article summarizes the analysis used by courts in assessing searches conducted of hospital patients, their rooms and their belongings–whether in the Emergency Department or elsewhere at a hospital. Most of the caselaw in this area involves criminal defendants challenging a search conducted while they were hospital patients. Many cases involve police or state hospital staff performing the searches and thus involve the Fourth Amendment right of protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Courts have also addressed private searches, e.g., searches conducted by members of a private hospital’s staff rather than the police. Both types of cases offer valuable insight into the type and scope of permitted searches at hospitals.

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