MCG releases patient facing arrest

Another South Carolina law enforcement agency is complaining that a patient facing criminal charges left Medical College of Georgia Hospital without police being notified.

Edgefield Police Chief Ronald Carter said the hospital let Joseph Williams leave earlier this week despite knowing he faced pending felony arrest warrants involving two counts of sexual assault on a minor.

In June, the Aiken County Sheriff's Office complained when a murder suspect recovering from gunshot wounds slipped out of the hospital without police being told.

Chief Carter said Friday that Mr. Williams, of Bausket Street, Edgefield, was to be served with warrants Tuesday when he was involved in a wreck near his home. Chief Carter said witnesses said Mr. Williams appeared to have driven his pickup head-on toward an oncoming tractor-trailer. Mr. Williams was taken to MCG for treatment of chest pains, complications with a lung and a broken leg.

"The affidavits had been turned over to the magistrate waiting to be signed when the wreck happened," the chief said. "When he was transported, we notified MCG security, which they told us at the time that the hospital policy was they felt like it was a violation of the HIPAA (federal patient privacy) law to notify us when he was released."

The chief said Mr. Williams is accused of sexual assault involving two girls, now 14 and 15, over several years.

The chief said an MCG security official told his department "... they would try to notify us when he was being released. This was coming from their police department. But he (the MCG security official) told me up front that most of the time the nursing staff will not notify them when somebody is being released. They won't even notify their own people. It's almost like it's intentional.

"Eventually, their policy is going to get somebody hurt or killed."

MCG Hospital officials did not return phone messages left Thursday and Friday.

Chief Carter said the warrants for Mr. Williams' arrest were signed by a judge within hours after the Tuesday wreck, but by Wednesday, he said, Mr. Williams had been released.

Later that night, Aiken County authorities got a call from Mr. Williams.

"Evidently he had left the hospital a little too early," said Aiken County sheriff's Capt. Troy Elwell.

Capt. Elwell said his department learned Mr. Williams was wanted, and he was taken to the county's detention center on Wire Road, receiving medical care there.

Capt. Elwell said it's frustrating to see a second case.

"There's a clause in the HIPAA law that says law enforcement can be notified when charges are pending or charges are brought against, so I don't understand what the issue at hand is," he said.

"But there's definitely a problem."

In the June incident, Alan Sheffield, the director of safety and security for the hospital, said the hospital can't restrict the movement of a patient who hasn't been formally arrested.

Mr. Sheffield said at the time he would encourage police in such matters to "make the appropriate arrest so that an officer may be positioned within the patient's surroundings to ensure that their movements are appropriately confined and they do not depart the hospital prior to being medically discharged by a physician."

Chief Carter said his office doesn't have jurisdiction to provide guards at the Georgia hospital and would have had to call in Richmond County officers once the warrant was signed.

"And we can't hardly request that Richmond County send a deputy other there and just wait pending our charges," he said.

"That's unreasonable to ask of them, I think."

He said he doesn't understand why the hospital can't notify law enforcement when patients with pending charges are released.

"HIPAA protects somebody's rights as far as releasing their medical information," the chief said.

"And we were not requesting any medical information. The only thing we were requesting was please notify us when he is being released so we can arrange to have somebody over there to lock him up."

Reach Preston Sparks at (803) 648-1395, Ext. 110 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com