By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
A Middletown, Ohio homeowner is accused in the arson of his own home, reportedly causing four hundred thousand dollars in damage and the loss of a personal pet. Arson investigators became suspicious about the cause of the fire from inconsistent statements made along with finding multiple origins of the fire. Police retrieved the recording of the 9-1-1 call the defendant made reporting the conflagration. During this he made mention of having an “artificial heart.” But what probably seemed ordinary for the defendant led to a trove of information used as incriminating data.
His pacemaker telemetry data became a source of incriminating evidence.
Network World reports that in September of 2016 a residential fire broke out, advancing rapidly to fully engulfed the structure. While the homeowner escaped the flames his pet cat did not.
One month later, fifty-nine-year-old homeowner Ross Compton was arrested and charged with felony aggravated arson and insurance fraud.
Investigators placed heavy emphasis on Compton’s “conflicting statements” In the 9-1-1 call, he claimed that “everyone” was out of the house but later dispatchers heard him yell to others to “get out now”. During the call he sounded out of breath, resulting from what he said was from having to pack suitcases, breaking out glass, and tossing the suitcases out a window.
He claimed to have an “artificial heart”.
Not believing Compton’s claim of being out of breath from exertion in his hastily removal of items from the house, police obtained a search warrant to retrieve data from the pacemaker emplaced within Compton’s body. The warrant specified as items to be retrieved, viz “Compton’s heart rate, pacer demand and cardiac rhythms before, during and after the fire.”
From the data retrieved, Middletown Police consulted the services of a cardiologist to interpret the telemetry and determine of the pacemaker and heart function were commensurate with the exertion Compton reportedly experienced during the incident. The cardiologist determined that “it is highly improbable Mr. Compton would have been able to collect, pack and remove the number of items from the house, exit his bedroom window and carry numerous large and heavy items to the front of his residence during the short period of time he was indicated due to his medical conditions.”
Police stated they believed the pacemaker telemetry to be a significant factor in obtaining an indictment. Other alleged evidence included locating several gasoline residues in different parts of the residence along with traces of gasoline on Compton’s person.
While I commend investigators for arriving at this interesting investigatory technique I have concerns of the possibility for self-incrimination of heart patients will be more damaging, all things considered. While I opined the self-incrimination argument to this data retrieval to be rather weak, from a Doctor / Patient perspective such a defense may gain credibility.
In this case, a device mounted within the body of an individual is designed to generate data that will certainly constitute a communication between a cardiologist, or other specialist, and the defendant patient. But from a public health perspective potential damage will be greater.
Should a patient be warned that his pacemaker will generate information that could be used against them in a criminal trial? And, if so how many patients unquestionably in need of an implanted heart device will elect instead to forego such as procedure, and as a result risk suffering a cardiac event that could be debilitating or fatal.
A pacemaker’s telemetry was never intended to be a dictation device to provide to law enforcement, though on balance medical records are commonly subpoenaed or searched pursuant to a search warrant.
Has privacy become so fragile in the United States that one’s own heartbeat can be intruded upon by the state? I certainly hope that other centuries old crime scene investigation tools can deliver results before such intrusions become common.
By Darren Smith
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