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Hospital patients do not have the right to be notified before authorities execute a criminal search warrant seeking the patients’ medical records, the Georgia Supreme Court held on Monday. The court’s unanimous decision rejected a DUI suspect’s attempt to extend to search warrants a 2000 ruling that required prosecutors to notify patients before seeking their medical records through a subpoena. The 2000 decision said subpoenas did not include enough procedural safeguards to patients’ constitutional rights to privacy. But in the case decided on Monday, Chief Justice Norman S. Fletcher wrote that warrants sufficiently protect individuals’ privacy — because federal and state constitutions require judges to sign warrants only after concluding state officers have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. “Requiring pre-seizure notice and a hearing would undermine the use of search warrants in criminal investigations,” Fletcher wrote for the court. King v. State, No. S02A1329 (Sup. Ct. Ga. Jan. 27, 2003). Jack S. Schroder Jr. of Atlanta-based Alston & Bird, who advises the Georgia Hospital Association, said Monday’s ruling helps clarify the 2000 decision, which he said left hospitals struggling with new rules concerning voluminous record requests. Schroder said Monday’s ruling — combined with a recent decision from Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court — means that the 2000 case requiring more procedural safeguards from record requests by subpoena applied only to criminal cases in which the state seeks the records. The 2000 decision does not apply to civil cases, Schroder concluded. Monday’s case stemmed from the February 2000 car accident in which Michael David King’s car spun out of control, became airborne and landed upside down on a Gwinnett County, Ga., road. According to Fletcher’s ruling, King was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center, where he told a police officer he would submit to a state-administered blood test. The test showed King had a 0.19 blood-alcohol content, well over the legal limit, according to the decision. BLOOD TEST RESULTS TOSSED King was charged with DUI and failure to maintain a single lane, but a trial judge threw out the results of the state-administered blood test after prosecutors could not find the hospital worker who drew King’s blood to testify, according to King’s lawyer, Sherry Boston of The Chestney-Hawkins Law Firm in Atlanta. But prosecutors from the Gwinnett County Solicitor’s Office obtained a search warrant from a magistrate for all of King’s medical records. A trial judge then denied Boston’s motion to suppress King’s records, leading to the appeal before the Georgia Supreme Court. Boston’s argument relied on the 2000 decision of the high court restricting the use of subpoenas to get medical records. That 2000 decision is called, coincidentally, King v. State, 272 Ga. 788. The 2000 King case held that individuals have a state constitutional right to privacy that limits the state’s authority to obtain evidence by a subpoena. But in deciding the current King case, Fletcher wrote that the 2000 King case “made clear that our decision was limited to the State’s use of a subpoena,” specifically distinguishing between subpoenas and search warrants. As a result of that distinction, Fletcher wrote that the court would not extend the 2000 King decision to the current one. “Obviously we’re very disappointed,” said Boston, who added that the decision did not address her side’s complaints that prosecutors sought the search warrant from a magistrate without the knowledge of the Superior Court judge trying King’s case. “The two judges were unaware of the actions of the other,” she said. Gerald N. Blaney Jr., the Gwinnett solicitor general, could not be reached to discuss the case. 2000 RULING ‘GIVING US FITS’ Alston & Bird’s Schroder, a counsel to the hospital association, said that the 2000 King decision “has been giving us fits,” because no one was sure if it applied to the numerous civil cases in which litigants regularly subpoena hospitals for medical records. Late last year, Senior Judge William L. McMurray Jr. held in a Fulton Superior Court case that the 2000 King decision applied only to criminal cases, Schroder said, and the Georgia Court of Appeals refused to review the decision. Jagiella v. Composite State Board of Medical Examiners, No. 2002-CV-51639 (Fult. Super. Dec. 2, 2002). In the current King case, Schroder said that Fletcher’s ruling that the 2000 King decision applied only to the state’s use of a subpoena suggested that the ruling would be limited to criminal matters. That means hospitals would need to deal with the 2000 King case only in criminal matters — not civil ones. Monday’s ruling in the DUI case was one of 11 decisions released by the justices. In one case, the court affirmed the murder conviction and death sentence of Gregory Paul Lawler, who was convicted of murdering Atlanta police officer John Richard “Rick” Sowa in 1997. Lawler v. State, No. S02P1377 (Sup. Ct. Ga. Jan. 27, 2003). In another case, the court held that under the terms of a particular insurance policy, Georgia law holds that carpal tunnel syndrome is an injury — as opposed to a sickness — that would require the insurance company to pay benefits for the life of the plaintiff. The decision came as a result of a certified question from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Provident Life and Accident Insurance, No. S02Q1307 (Sup. Ct. Ga. Jan. 27, 2003).

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