On March 4, 2022, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Mattox[i], in which the court examined whether a person who had been shot had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his hospital room and whether statements he made to the police were voluntary. The relevant facts of Mattox are as follows:
On September 22, 2018, police officers responded to a 911 call about gunshots at an apartment complex in St. Paul, Minnesota. The officers followed a fresh blood trail and found a loaded Desert Eagle .50-caliber semi-automatic pistol with blood on it and the hammer cocked back in the firing position. The officers learned that a man had been shot in his face and right foot and had been taken to the hospital.
An officer went to the emergency room at the hospital and entered the man’s room. The man’s bloody clothes were on the floor, and at the officer’s request, a nurse took the identification from the clothes. The identification showed the defendant’s name, Marcus Mattox. The officer took the clothes, and the next day, an officer went to the hospital and executed a warrant for a DNA swab from Mattox and asked him some questions for a few minutes. Mattox admitted that he was at the scene of the crime and stated that he did not know who shot him. He declined to answer more questions.
The police compared Mattox’s DNA sample to gun swabs that tested positive for blood. The swabs matched Mattox’s DNA sample. The police also obtained video surveillance footage of the shooting. The video shows Mattox exit the apartment building, approach a male and a female at the back of an SUV in the parking lot, appear to draw a firearm, and take a shooting stance. After Mattox drew his gun, the male appeared to shoot at Mattox.[ii]
Mattox was subsequently charged under federal law with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a motion to suppress and argued that the evidence obtained from his hospital room, particularly his clothes, and his statements should be suppressed. The district court denied the motion. Mattox was convicted at trial. He filed an appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and argued, among other things, that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress. This article will only discuss the issues related to the motion to suppress.
On appeal, Mattox first argued that the officers violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment when they seized his bloody clothing from the floor of his hospital room. Thus, the issue before the court of appeals was whether Mattox, had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his hospital room in the emergency department of a hospital.
The court first examined the legal principles applicable to this issue. The court of appeals stated
The Fourth Amendment permits an officer to seize an object without a warrant under the plain-view doctrine if “(1) the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment in arriving at the place from which the evidence could be plainly viewed, (2) the object’s incriminating character is immediately apparent, and (3) the officer has a lawful right of access to the object itself.” United States v. Vinson, 805 F.3d 1150, 1152 (8th Cir. 2015).[iii]
On appeal, Mattox only argued that the officers did not meet the first requirement, particularly, he argued that the police violated the Fourth Amendment in entering his hospital room, where they viewed his bloody clothing. Thus, the court of appeals set out to determine if Mattox had an “objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in the hospital room.”[iv]
Mattox argued that he had the same reasonable expectation of privacy as an overnight guest in a home or hotel room. However, the court pointed out that overnight guests have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a home or hotel room because that is “a longstanding social custom that serves functions recognized as valuable by society.”[v]
The court then noted, for the reasons that follow, that being admitted to a hospital for a gunshot wound does not serve the same social custom as being an overnight guest at a home. First, under Minnesota law, when a person is admitted to the hospital for a gunshot wound, the hospital is required to notify the police; therefore, police are expected to show up at the hospital to investigate the circumstances of the shooting. Second, the court noted that the Fourth Circuit has previously held that
[A] police officer “lawfully fulfilling his duty to investigate a reported shooting . . . lawfully entered the emergency room of a hospital to interview the victim of the shooting.” United States v. Davis, 690 F.3d 226, 234 n.13 (4th Cir. 2012).[vi]
Third, hospital rooms are unlike homes and hotel rooms in that there are constantly people coming into the room to provide medical treatment. Lastly, while a person has a significant privacy interest in their medical treatment, this privacy interest is diminished as related to gunshot wounds because of state law requiring the police to be notified.
Therefore, the court of appeals held that Mattox did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his room, and as such, the police did not violate the Fourth Amendment in entering the room, where they viewed the evidence, in plain view.
The second issue on appeal was whether Mattox’s statements to police in the hospital room were voluntary. Mattox argued that the statements he made to the police should be suppressed because his statements were not voluntary. He did not argue that he was in custody, but simply that the statements were involuntary.
The court first noted the relevant legal principles and stated
A statement is involuntary when it was extracted by threats, violence, or express or implied promises sufficient to overbear the defendant’s will and critically impair his capacity for self-determination.” Vega, 676 F.3d at 718. “We determine if a defendant’s will has been overborne by examining the totality of the circumstances, including both the conduct of law enforcement in exerting pressure to confess on the defendant and the defendant’s ability to resist that pressure.” Brave Heart, 397 F.3d at 1040. “The government bears the burden of persuasion and must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the challenged statements were voluntary.” Vega, 676 F.3d at 718.[vii]
Mattox argued that his statements were involuntary because, (1) he was in the hospital being treated for gunshot wounds, (2) he had been given pain medication, (3) the police executed a search warrant to obtain a DNA sample, and (4) he was not provided warnings under Miranda.
The court of appeals examined the totality of the circumstances and stated that the police did not overbear Mattox’s will by use of threats or promises. The court also noted that the pain medication did not amount to overbearing Mattox’s will, as there was evidence that he understood the questions, he was not slurring his speech, spoke normally, and he answered questions appropriately. The court stated that this indicates that the medication did not impair his ability to resist police questioning if he so desired. The court also noted that the interview was short, only lasting “a few minutes.” Lastly, the court stated that the Miranda warnings were not required because Mattox was not in custody.
Therefore, the court of appeals held that Mattox’s statements were voluntary.
The court of appeals then affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 20-3065, No. 20-3133 (8th Cir. Decided March 4, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 6
[vii] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)