Jury Finds NYC Arrest Policy Violated First Amendment
A Christmas Comedic Break

Is the Surgical Removal of a Bullet an Unreasonable Search and Seizure?

In a case that raises a number of really interesting constitutional and privacy issues--and sounds like something right out of Law and Order, prosecutors in Texas have obtained a search warrant authorizing the surgical removal of a bullet from a man's head.  As reported in this article:

Prosecutors say (the bullet) will prove that Bush, 17, tried to kill the owner of a used-car lot after a robbery in July. And they have obtained a search warrant to extract the slug.

But Bush and his lawyer are fighting the removal, in a legal and medical oddity that raises questions about patient privacy and how far the government can go to solve crimes without running afoul of the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

"It's unfortunate this arguably important piece of evidence is in a place where it can't be easily retrieved," said Seth Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. "You have to balance our desire to convict the guilty against the government not poking around our bodies on a supposition."

A judge took the unusual step of issuing a search warrant to retrieve the bullet from Bush's head in October. But a Beaumont doctor determined that small pieces of bone were growing around the slug, and he did not have the proper tools in the emergency room to do it. The doctor said that removal would require surgery under general anesthesia and that no operating rooms were available.

Police then obtained a second search warrant and scheduled the operation for last week at the University of Texas Medical Branch hospital in Galveston. It was postponed again, however, after the hospital decided not to participate for reasons it would not discuss.

Prosecutors said they continue to look for a doctor or hospital willing to remove the bullet. 

All sides agree that removing the bullet would not be life-threatening. But Bush's family and attorney say it would be a violation of the teenager's civil rights and set a dangerous precedent.

What an intriguing issue.  Not surprisingly, I'm not in favor of allowing the retrieval of the bullet.  The assertion that removal of the bullet "won't be life threatening" is simply false.  Any operation is potentially life threatening--especially one that requires  general anesthesia.  Adverse reactions to the drugs used are possible as is an unexpected head bleed or other adverse consequence as a result of the operation. 

I strongly oppose the prosecution's position in this case.  In my opinion, the risks, no matter how statistically unlikely, are potentially quite serious and far outweigh any potential benefits of the fishing expedition being carried out by prosecutors.  And, the ethical issues, both medical and legal, are quite complex and consist of innumerable shades of gray, as well.  It's a slippery slope and the ramifications of allowing this procedure are far reaching.  It's simply not worth it.


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Apparently the US Supreme Court decided in Winston vs. Lee, 470 US 753 (1985) that ordering surgery to remove a bullet consitutes a 4th amendment violation.


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