Firefighters and Fourth Amendment Seizure Law

Today’s burning question: When fire and EMS personnel render aid to a person whose capacity appears to be diminished, and we do not allow the person to decline aid and leave the scene, can we be guilty of violating the person’s 4th Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures?

Answer: The Fourth Amendment is indeed implicated when we detain and treat a patient who has expressed a desire to leave. This is in addition to the more traditional concerns relative to allegations of false arrest/false imprisonment. However, the courts have shown a deference toward fire and EMS personnel given that our intent is not to detain the person in an effort to investigate the commission of a crime, but rather is based upon concerns about the patient’s own well-being.

Last month the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a ruling in a criminal case relating to the 4th Amendment implications of fire and EMS personnel detaining a patient out of concern for the patient’s well being.

The facts, as explained by the court:

[O]n April 29, 2012, Anthony Gore was sitting in his 2004 Nissan Maxima with the car door open waiting on a friend… to pick him up. The defendant, Bennie Overton, approached Gore asking to borrow a cigarette lighter. After Gore told Overton that he did not have a cigarette lighter, Overton became more aggressive, walked closer to the car, and eventually pulled what appeared to be a firearm from his jacket. Gore testified that Overton then placed the firearm to his temple and ordered him to move to the passenger side of the car. Gore complied with Overton’s commands, and Overton sat in the driver’s seat with the muzzle of the firearm touching Gore’s side…. Fearing that Overton might kidnap or shoot him if he did not get away immediately, Gore opened the passenger door and ran away as fast as he could. Overton drove away in Gore’s Nissan, traveling in the opposite direction.

Five days later, on May 4, 2012, Cincinnati Fire Department personnel (“EMS personnel”) received a 911 call for emergency medical assistance, relating to a “reported unconscious person in a vehicle at the gas pumps” of a gas station on Gilbert Avenue. Upon arriving at the gas station, the EMS personnel saw their patient (later identified as Overton) leaning back in the driver’s seat of a silver sedan (later identified as Gore’s 2004 Nissan Maxima). The patient was “in the driver’s seat, eyes closed, unresponsive, the doors closed.” After blowing the fire truck’s air horn and administering ammonia inhalants in unsuccessful attempts to rouse Overton, the EMS personnel employed a sternum rub technique to wake him.

Upon waking, Overton seemed confused and disoriented and grabbed the shirt of the firefighter who administered the sternum rub. While the EMS personnel were talking to Overton and attempting to ascertain his condition, he shifted his legs in his seat and exposed the handle of a .45 caliber pistol. At this point, the EMS personnel began to get nervous for their safety and the safety of those around them. They accordingly removed Overton from the car and secured the pistol.

On June 6, 2012, a grand jury indicted Overton for the following crimes: one count of carjacking, one count of using, carrying, or brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence, and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Overton filed a motion to suppress the pistol discovered by the EMS personnel, which the district court denied after an evidentiary hearing. Overton then pled guilty to the felon in possession of a firearm count on August 13, 2012, but proceeded to a jury trial on the carjacking and brandishing offenses. The trial took place over three days in August of 2012, and the jury returned guilty verdicts on both remaining counts. The district court then sentenced Overton to a within-Guidelines term of 199 months’ imprisonment, five years of supervised release, a $1,000 fine, and the forfeiture of various items. Overton filed a Notice of Appeal the day after the district court entered judgment, and this appeal followed.

Overton contends … that the EMS personnel unreasonably seized his person in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they would not allow him to leave for twenty to thirty seconds after he said that he was fine. There is support for this argument in the record given that one of the firefighters testified at the suppression hearing that, even before they saw the pistol, they would not have allowed Overton to leave for fear that his health was in jeopardy. As the Supreme Court repeatedly has held, a person is seized for Fourth Amendment purposes when a reasonable person in his circumstances would not feel free to leave. …

Even assuming the EMS personnel seized Overton, however, the inquiry under the Fourth Amendment is not merely whether a seizure has occurred; it is whether, provided there has been a seizure, that seizure was unreasonable.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, we conclude that Overton’s seizure was reasonable. As the transcript of the suppression hearing reflects, EMS personnel detained Overton, who was unconscious when they arrived on the scene, in order to render medical aid. They did not seek to arrest or incapacitate Overton. Overton’s detention lasting for twenty to thirty seconds after he said he was fine accordingly does not amount to an unreasonable seizure. See Peete v. Metro. Gov’t of Nashville & Davidson Cnty., 486 F.3d 217, 222 (6th Cir. 2007) (finding no Fourth Amendment violation where paramedics merely responded to a medical emergency and “were not acting to enforce the law, deter or incarcerate”). The district court therefore did not err when it denied Overton’s motion to suppress the .45 caliber pistol, which came into the EMS personnel’s plain view during Overton’s detention.

Here is a copy of the ruling: US v Overton

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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