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State Constitutional Protections for Medical Information - King v. State, No. S99A1490, 2000 WL 1468217 (Ga. 10/02/2000)

This is an interesting medical privacy case that arises under state constitutional law.  King was involved in a automobile accident and was brought into the emergency room semi-conscious.  She was treated according to the hospital's trauma protocol, which included blood-alcohol testing.  She had a blood alcohol of 0.15.  An hour later a police investigator requested a blood-alcohol test under the state law allowing testing of persons suspected of DWI.  That test also showed intoxication, but King's lawyer was able to get it excluded from evidence because of problems establishing the identity and qualifications of the person administering the test.  The state then subpoenaed King's medical records and attempted to use those to establish her intoxication.

The court began its analysis with a discussion of policy concerns and the reasonable extent of a patient's privacy expectations.  The court found that while Georgia (and other states) does not recognize a common-law physician-patient privilege, medical information is such that a person would want to keep it private and thus should be entitled to any privacy protections generally provided by the U.S. and state constitutions.  The court found that the Georgia constitution did prevent the disclosure of medical information unless pursuant to a statute ". . . which effectuates a compelling state interest and which is narrowly tailored to promote only that interest." The State argued that it did have authority for such a subpoena under a Georgia law that provided:

"[n]o physician ... and no hospital or health care facility ... shall be required to release any medical information concerning a patient except ... on appropriate court order or subpoena ... provided, further, that the privilege shall be waived to the extent that the patient places his care and treatment or the nature and extent of his injuries at issue in any civil or criminal proceeding."

The court found that this law was more of a protection for patients than an authorization for obtaining their records in a criminal case, against the patient's consent.  Since it was the State, and not the defendant, who raised her medical condition, the court did not find this adequate authority for the subpoena.  The court then discussed the difference between using a subpoena and a search warrant, with the great procedural protections attendant to a search warrant, including that the statute at issue makes not provision for the defendant to contest the subpoena.  The court found that the statute did not provide sufficient procedural safeguards to obtain information to be used in a criminal proceeding and thus its use was unconstitutional. The court excluded the medical records, but specifically limited its ruling to evidence obtained with an ex-parte subpoena and made it clear that this does affect the right of the police to use other investigative tools such as search warrant.

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