Strict federal privacy laws protecting patients at health-care facilities left law enforcers in a frustrating situation as they sought to apprehend a man suspected of assaulting his wife and trying to burn her house down.

"We at least would like to know where these people are at," said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Paul Jaroscak.

But that wasn't how it worked out earlier this week when deputies tried to serve an arrest warrant on the man, who had checked himself into the University Neuropsychiatric Institute (Uni). Although officers had learned from informants that the man was there, hospital officials refused to disclose if he was a patient, citing federal privacy laws.

Law enforcers fear criminals may try to use those privacy rules — such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — as a way to hide from police.

The incident began May 18 when Alejandro Don Martinez got into an argument with his wife near 1700 East and 8600 South, according to an affidavit for a search warrant filed in 3rd District Court.

As the wife drove away from the house, Martinez threw a rock through her driver's side window and hit her in the head, causing her to bleed, according to the affidavit.

Later Martinez used cigarettes and newspapers to start a fire inside the house, the affidavit stated. He was injured in that fire.

Martinez was admitted to University Hospital. Investigators learned through other sources he was there. But when detectives went to the hospital, "hospital staff refused to disclose any information about the defendant, including his presence or absence at the hospital," the affidavit stated.

Martinez was released from the hospital without authorities being notified as they had requested, the affidavit stated.

On Monday, deputies learned Martinez was staying with his mother and called her, notifying her of the arrest warrant and telling her to have her son turn himself in. Instead, Martinez checked into Uni.

Again, federal privacy laws prohibited the hospital from confirming to police whether Martinez was present, even when detectives arrived at the front door with an arrest warrant.

After a search warrant was obtained, hospital officials were able to confirm Martinez's presence. He was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on Tuesday for investigation of aggravated arson and aggravated assault. He also had warrants in previous cases for aggravated assault and aggravated arson.

Hospitals should be allowed to give basic information to police, according to Salt Lake Deputy District Attorney Kent Morgan. A couple of years ago, Morgan wrote a letter to clarify HIPAA rules and how they pertain to law enforcement.

"A health-care provider can disclose limited information in response to law enforcement's request to identify or locate a suspect," he stated.

Morgan reaffirmed his statement Thursday.

"HIPAA was never designed to hide suspects or to obstruct from police investigations. Rather it was designed to protect the privacy of individuals' records who are receiving medical care," he said.

However, patients checked into facilities that receive federal funding for substance abuse treatment, such as Uni, receive special protections. Police must have both a search warrant and an arrest warrant before doctors can disclose whether a patient has been admitted.

The intent of the law is to keep people from being deterred from seeking treatment for their substance abuse problems, said Liz Winter, deputy General Counsel at the University of Utah.

Hospital spokesman Chris Nelson added, "I don't think we're trying to be antagonistic toward law enforcement."

Nelson said obtaining search warrants from the courts should be fairly easy for law enforcers and shouldn't severely slow down their investigations.

Jaroscak said playing by the paperwork rules is common and may be fine in most circumstances.

"But if someone has been murdered, for example, and they won't tell us where the murderer is . . . that's different," he said. "Had this informant not told us where he (Martinez) was at, he could have hidden out (at Uni) for a while, wait till things die down and then check out and head out of state. Or worse, he may go try to find the victim."

While HIPAA is designed to protect the rights of patients, in this case, Jaroscak said, "The system failed in our efforts to protect the victim."

Winter, however, said even with privacy rules, if doctors or nurses feel they are in danger or notice red flags from a patient that their safety or the safety of other patients is in jeopardy, they can call police and notify them.

"We don't want dangerous people being in our hospital," she said.

Hospital officials also note that sometimes officers will arrest a person, bring the individual to the hospital for treatment, leave and ask that the hospital notify them when the patient is released.

Winter said police should stick around until the patient is ready to go.

"If they're really dangerous, don't leave a hundred-pound nurse to guard him," she said.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com