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The Tell-Tale Pacemaker: Man Charged With Arson After Police Examine Pacemaker Data

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart' tells the tale of a man, so wracked with guilt and paranoia after a well crafted murder that he begins to hear the beating of his victim's heart from under his floorboards and (spoiler alert) confesses to the crime.

Now, Poe's classic tale seems to have come to life in Middletown, Ohio. Well, almost. There's no murder, just alleged arson and insurance fraud. And it's not a dead man's heart that matters here, but the supposed arsonist's. That would be Ross Compton's heart. Police arrested the Ohio man two weeks ago, after examining data they subpoenaed from his pacemaker, data which they believe shows he burnt down his own home.

The Heart of the Matter

Compton's tale begins with the loss of his house on September 19th of last year. As his home went up in flames, Compton packed up a suitcase and several bags, used his cane to break his window, then tossed the bags outside before dragging them to his car. That is, at least, what Compton told a 911 dispatcher and the police, according to the Journal-News.

Police were skeptical. So, they got a search warrant for the data from Compton's pacemaker. Compton, 59, has both an artificial heart implant with an external pump and an electronic pacemaker. That data was reviewed by a cardiologist who declared:

[I]t 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 has indicated due to his medical conditions.

On the basis of that information, Compton was arrested and charged with arson and insurance fraud. His medical data was "one of the key pieces of evidence that allowed us to charge him," Lieutenant Jimmy Cunningham said.

(The gasoline police found on Compton's clothing and shoes probably helped, too.)

Every Heartbeat Can and Will Be Used Against You

The case has some wondering whether the use of an individual's own heart against them raises concerns about self-incrimination or privacy violations. The use of pacemaker data certainly raises some interesting questions about privacy and the Fifth Amendment, though the Supreme Court has ruled that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination doesn't apply to providing samples of hair or blood. HIPAA, the federal medical privacy act, also sets forth ways medical information can be disclosed to law enforcement, not always requiring the use of a warrant. Some states, such as California, have slightly more stringent standards, mandating search warrants for medical records.

And while this is the first time we've heard of a pacemaker being used to justify an arrest, it's not the first time law enforcement officers have used personal, health-related data against suspects.

In 2015, for example, a woman in Pennsylvania told police she had been sexually assaulted in her sleep. Police examined data from her Fitbit, a wearable fitness-tracking device, which showed that she was awake and walking around during the alleged crime. That information was used to charge her with making a false report.

As for Compton, the man betrayed by his pacemaker, he described the whole process as "utterly insane."

"This investigation has gone way out of control," he told the local news. "I had no motive whatsoever to burn down my house."

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