An officer who found drugs in an unconscious accident victim’s belongings while searching for identification did not violate his constitutional rights, the Court of Appeals decided on Thursday.
El Paso County resident David Buskey was jaywalking when a car hit him. An ambulance took him unconscious to a hospital, after which the investigating Colorado Springs police officer stopped by to see him. Buskey remained unconscious, but hospital staff told the officer Buskey had no apparent injuries from the accident. They asked the officer to look through Buskey’s belongings for identification in order to understand his medical history. The officer complied because he also wanted to cite Buskey for the offense of being a pedestrian in the roadway.
While searching for identification, the officer found a cigarette pack containing two bags of a crystal substance. A laboratory later confirmed it was methamphetamine and prosecutors charged Buskey with possession of a controlled substance.
Before his trial, Buskey asked the El Paso County District Court to suppress the evidence because the officer obtained it through a warrantless search. The judge found that because medical personnel asked the officer to locate the identification, the search fell under a medical exemption to the Fourth Amendment, which covers searches while rendering immediate aid.
Buskey received a sentence of two years of probation after a jury found him guilty.
The appeals panel affirmed that a search for an unconscious or semi-conscious victim’s identification qualified as an exemption to the warrantless search prohibition if it was for the purpose of providing medical assistance.
“Buskey argues that the officer’s search of his belongings for identification was not justified under the medical emergency exception because the officer’s primary purpose was not to render emergency assistance but rather to serve him with a summons,” wrote Judge David H. Yun for the three-member panel. “However, this argument overlooks the fact that the medical staff asked the officer to search for identification because it ‘would help’ to know Buskey’s medical history and any reason he might be unconscious.”
The unpublished opinion, which is not meant to serve as precedent, also dismissed the argument that the Colorado Springs officer acted improperly by looking through the cigarette case. The appellate judges agreed with the district court that the officer was credible in testifying how some people kept their identification in similar containers, in his experience.
Faisal Salahuddin, a criminal defense attorney at Frank & Salahuddin in Denver, said that the legal system is meant to balance competing interests. In Buskey's case, the government's interest in protecting life and health outweighed his right to privacy.
"The issue here is really a privacy interest, which the Fourth Amendment protects," Salahuddin said. "But it's a privacy interest competing against the state's need to protect life and health. So in order to protect those competing interests, the courts have fashioned exceptions the Fourth Amendment, one of them being medical aid."
The case is People v. Buskey.
This story has been updated with information about the agency involved.
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