Arrested Due to Incriminating Evidence From… a Pacemaker


A man from Ohio was recently being investigated for arson, and after obtaining a search warrant for his pacemaker data, police found the data to be incriminating. According to his heart rate and cardiac rhythms, his alibi for the fire was found to be impossible.

In light of this news, we asked SERMO physicians, should data from implanted medical devices be admissible evidence in court?

Over 1800 doctors from 30+ countries weighed-in on the debate, considering whether or not medical devices should be used as an investigative tool, as well as the role of surveillance in their country. Globally, 72 percent of doctors stated, yes, data from implanted medical devices should be admissible evidence in court:

“Yes, but under limited circumstances.” - Dermatology

“The pacemaker is a device, just like a firearm, car, lock pick etc. The pacemaker did not commit the crime, the owner did. To me at least, it’s just another ‘thing’ in the evidentiary record. We use ‘things’ associated with a particular individual all the time to both convict and proclaim innocence in the court system.” – Radiology 

“If you are scared Big Brother may be reading your pacemaker data; or the NSA may be reading metadata from your text messages. The answer is always the same. Only people doing bad things need to worry. If you aren’t committing arson or texting ISIS, what do you have to hide?” – Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery 

“If the facts are available, they can be used. Same applies to video cameras. They are ‘new technology.’ But they are admissible evidence. DNA analysis. Etc. The evidence can go either way – it could be exculpatory or be incriminating.” – Neurology

However, 28 percent of doctors maintained that it would be unethical and nonsensical to use medical data in court:

“In the case of life-saving devices, demanding/obtaining incriminating data from the device could be reasonably compared to obtaining confessions from witches, prior to burning them at the stake, via the threat of death by drowning.” – Anesthesiology 

“Like other medical data, it should be released only with the consent of the patient or under a HIPAA exception.” – Internal Medicine

Of the minority of doctors who asserted that pacemaker data should not be used to incriminate individuals, some argued it was because the data is too subjective:

“As always the biggest problem in taking into account the data detected by implanted medical devices is DATA INTERPRETATION!!” – Gastroenterology 

“Pacemaker data is more subjective and should be subjected to inquiry as to its validity in this regard.” – Radiology, US

The poll was fielded in August of 2017. 1877 physicians responded to the poll. The margin of error for the global poll was ±2%. More information about SERMO polling methodology can be found here.

Are you a physician? Log into SERMO to discuss ethical questions with other doctors from around the world.



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