Administration and Leadership, EMS Insider

New Mexico Case Underscores the Importance of EMS Collaboration with Law Enforcement

A New Mexico paramedic will have to live with a felony arrest on her record for the rest of her life due to a set of unusual circumstances.

Christine Stump, a paramedic with Albuquerque Ambulance, responded to an overdose call on November 27, 2008. When she arrived, the patient was being uncooperative with the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) officers on scene, resulting in the patient being handcuffed and escorted to the stretcher.

An officer uncuffed one of the patient’s hands; at this time Officer Regina Sanchez thought the patient was putting Stump in danger and pushed the patient’s head and neck down. Stump thought the officer’s actions were detrimental to the patient and she shouted at Officer Sanchez to stop, and removed Sanchez’ arm from the patient. This interaction set off a series of events that has not reached full resolution after eight years in the legal system.

Stump was arrested later that night and charged with battery on a peace officer: a fourth degree felony.

A Misunderstanding

Once tempers cooled, Stump and Sanchez, along with their respective supervisors, participated in an Alternative Dispute Resolution process. Through the process, they agreed that they had a misunderstanding, and would have no problems working together in the future. Stump discovered that the patient had hit Officer Sanchez before EMS arrived; Officer Sanchez’ actions in restraining the patient were to protect Stump. Stump didn’t see the patient as a threat and was mainly concerned with getting her to the hospital promptly. Ultimately, it was decided that the conflict was a misunderstanding. APD agreed to assist Stump with the process of having her arrest expunged from her record and Stump agreed not to pursue a civil suit against APD as long as the charges were dismissed and expungement accomplished.

New Mexico doesn’t have an expungement statute and there is no rule or constitutional provision providing for the expungement of an adult’s felony record. Stump filed petitions for expungement in the District Court, which has inherent authority to expunge criminal records. The district court denied the request, indicating the case did not justify “the extraordinary power of expungement.”1 The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision. The Supreme Court found that the courts were not bound by the agreement between the parties, and that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying Stump’s request.

This case highlights the importance of working well with the other members of the public safety team. Could things have been handled differently? Law enforcement does have the discretion to make an arrest and charge EMS personnel with a crime if they feel it is appropriate. Unfortunately, in this case, a misunderstanding resulted in a paramedic with no prior criminal record now having a felony arrest on her record that will be with her for the rest of her life.

Partnership & Collaboration

This case brings a couple of larger issues into focus. First, it certainly highlights the need for effective cooperation between EMS and law enforcement. Just as EMS must respect the role of law enforcement in keeping the peace and enforcing the law, police must respect the paramount role of EMS providers in treating the ill and injured and ensuring they are transported appropriately for further case when necessary.

Second, it is admirable and a credit to all parties that cooler heads were able to prevail and that police and EMS were eventually able to reconcile their misunderstandings. And it is understandable that a court followed established law to deny expungement of the arrest record. But those things aside, one simple question has to be asked: why on earth did the police department find it necessary to file these charges against a fellow public safety professional in the first place?

Treating a patient is what medics are supposed to do – we are patient advocates first and foremost. The medic moved the cop’s hand in order to care for her patient? And that’s battery on a peace officer? The only thing injured here was a cop’s pride. There was no need for a hellfire rush to file these charges – there’s no evidence that a statute of limitations was about to expire. PD should have taken a “cooling off” period before it filed these charges in the first place – and set in motion a chain of events that will irrevocably tarnish a medic’s career. These charges were filed out of spite and anger and should never have been brought in the first place.

That is perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of this entire episode: that the police department filed hot-headed charges against a medic who was merely advocating for her patient instead of being a collaborative partner in public safety.

1. Stump v. Albuquerque Police Department, D-202-CV-2010-08145