The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled December 15 that a licensee who admitted improper sexual conduct to a board investigator who then passed that information to criminal law enforcement had not been denied his Fifth Amendment right to freedom from self-incrimination.
The court reasoned that the licensee did not have a reasonable belief that a refusal to cooperate with the investigator would result in the revocation of his license and was thus not coerced.
James Gideon, a rheumatologist, was accused by three patients of inappropriate touching. Although Gideon initially denied that conduct to the police, he admitted it to a board investigator who then informed law enforcement.
When the state brought criminal charges against Gideon, he moved to suppress his statements to the investigator as a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights to freedom from self-incrimination. A trial judge denied that motion and a jury convicted Gideon, who was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
A state appellate court reversed the convictions, agreeing with Gideon that his statements to the board investigator should have been suppressed. Another appeal sent the case up to the Supreme Court of Ohio.
On appeal, the Court, reviewing the record of Gideon’s case, determined that he had not produced sufficient evidence to show that the board investigator had coerced his statements. During his interview with the board investigator, Gideon had failed to assert his right to freedom from self-incrimination and the board investigator had neither told Gideon that he must waive those rights or that a failure to answer his questions would result in a loss of Gideon’s medical license. Gideon, the court held, thus had no reasonable belief that his license was in jeopardy should he not cooperate.
In addition, the court noted, the section of Ohio regulatory code that requires physicians to cooperate with board investigations does not automatically subject a licensee to revocation or suspension, as any resulting discipline would be subject to a board vote and a revocation is just one option among potential sanctions.
“In Gideon’s case, there was no direct threat of discipline for failure to cooperate; he faced only the possibility of discipline,” wrote Justice Melody Stewart.
The Court also disagreed with Gideon’s claim that the investigator was improperly acting as a proxy for criminal law enforcement. “The investigator admitted that he agreed to share information with the police, but that does not mean that he acted for the primary purpose of furthering a criminal prosecution by the state,” Justice Stewart wrote.
“The investigator interviewed Gideon for the primary purpose of determining whether Gideon was subject to disciplinary action by the medical board for engaging in the misconduct alleged by his patients.”
One Justice, Michael Donnelly, dissented. The board investigator’s interview of Gideon had been coercive and the investigator had been interviewing Gideon in order to improperly acquire information for the police investigation, Donnelly concluded.
Additionally, Justice Donnelly wrote that he thought Gideon had a reasonable belief that his license would be in jeopardy if he did not answer the investigator’s questions.
The Court reversed the lower court’s overturning of Gideon’s conviction and remanded the case for consideration of non-license-related evidentiary issues.