Medical privacy concerns delayed Christopher vehicular homicide trial
The trial for Cody Christopher, accused of driving drunk and causing a car wreck that killed two of his friends late on Dec. 28, 2017, is scheduled for June after issues with evidence gathering came up in preliminary hearings.
The trial had been scheduled to begin in April, but was delayed after a March 15 hearing when defense attorney Lawson Wills asked Ninth District Judge John Neiley to dismiss the case over alleged violations of patient-physician privilege. The jury trial is now scheduled to begin in June.
Ninth District Prosecutors obtained search warrants for medical records March 8, a week before the motions hearing, for records Wills says are subject to doctor-patient confidentiality laws.
The March hearing ended abruptly, according to attendees. Neiley ruled that the medical records are not subject to privilege rules, because doctors have a duty to report on matters that are material to criminal prosecution, according to an order filed Monday.
The two search warrants were not signed by Neiley, but by Garfield County Court Judge Jonathan Pototsky.
Christopher, 41, was arrested Dec. 29, 2017, after being released from St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction following the accident. He stands accused of driving drunk and causing a rollover crash that claimed the lives of Matthew Smith, 36, and Trent Johnson, 41, on the private Puma Paw Ranch Road north of Rifle. Johnson’s son, then 10 years old, survived the crash.
Christopher hiked from the scene of the crash for an undetermined amount of time, possibly carrying the 10-year-old, to the nearest ranch house.
It’s unclear what information the prosecution obtained from the warrants, but Neiley’s order indicates it is related to Christopher’s treatment he received at Grand River Health in Rifle, and later at St. Mary’s after the car crash.
During the motions hearing Wednesday, Wills maintained that the medical information was still privileged.
A number of issues were raised at the hearing related to warrants for Christopher’s blood tests.
Christopher did not agree or refuse to have his blood drawn at Grand River Health in the early hours of Dec. 29, 2017. A state trooper testified Wednesday that Christopher said, “I don’t know” repeatedly when asked to consent to a blood sample to test for alcohol.
In terms of probable cause for the blood tests, one trooper testified that Christopher had bloodshot eyes, slurred his speech, and smelled strongly of alcohol in the ambulance after he made it to the ranch house. Christopher also said he had “two beers” earlier that night, the trooper said.
The State Patrol eventually obtained a warrant and took three samples of Christopher’s blood, separated by intervals of an hour, after he was transported to St. Mary’s. The warrant, Wills contends, specified only one sample, not three.
On Jan. 5, 2017, days after Christopher was arrested, State Patrol also obtained a warrant to seize vials of Christopher’s blood taken for medical purposes at Grand River Health, but there were a number of issues with the sample.
The warrant specified eight samples when there were only seven — one of the vials had opened in an evidence bag and spilled. And, other vials may not have been properly sealed, raising questions about the chain of custody.
Prosecutors said they might not seek to admit those blood samples into evidence for the trial.
The purpose of the motions hearing is to determine whether a defendant’s Constitutional rights had been violated, not to weigh the merits of evidence. The hearing lasted all day Wednesday and was continued to Monday, April 29.
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