Curious Cop Downloaded Hundreds of Private Prescription Records Because He Could

Today, the ACLU and ACLU of Utah filed an amicus brief in support of a Utah paramedic whose Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police swept up his confidential prescription records in a dragnet search. Law enforcement’s disregard for basic legal protections in the case is shocking.

The United Fire Authority (UFA) is Utah’s largest fire agency, with 26 fire stations in communities surrounding Salt Lake City. Last year, some UFA employees discovered that several vials of morphine in ambulances based at three fire stations had been emptied of medication. Suspecting theft, they called the police. At this point, one would expect police to interview firefighters and paramedics with access to ambulances at those three stations and try to draw up a reasonable list of suspects. But one detective had a different idea.

Within a day or two of receiving the theft report, a detective with the Cottonwood Heights Police Department logged into the Utah Controlled Substances Database and downloaded the prescription histories of all 480 UFA employees. The database tracks patients’ prescriptions for medications used to treat a long list of common medical conditions, and the records can reveal extremely sensitive health information. But unlike some other states, Utah doesn’t require police to get a warrant before accessing this private data. The detective took advantage of this loophole and obtained a great deal of confidential information without going to a judge or demonstrating any individualized suspicion.

Even after scooping up the prescription histories of every UFA employee, the detective still couldn’t figure out who might be behind the morphine theft. Instead of stopping there, however, he went on a new fishing expedition through the records, looking for anything he deemed suspicious. He read through the prescription histories of hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, and clerical staff, learning what medications they took and revealing private facts like whether they suffered from an anxiety disorder, chronic pain, insomnia, or AIDS. He identified four people whose records seemed to indicate dependency on opioid painkillers, and convinced a prosecutor to charge three of them with prescription fraud. One of them, paramedic Ryan Pyle, filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the warrantless search of his prescription records violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The ACLU is now weighing in on his side.

Under the Fourth Amendment, police must get a warrant before searching items or places in which people have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The ACLU recently won a case in federal court in Oregon where we sued the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for requesting records from Oregon’s prescription database using administrative subpoenas instead of warrants. As the judge in that case explained, “The court easily concludes that [patients’] subjective expectation of privacy in their prescription information is objectively reasonable. ... The prescription information maintained by [the Oregon database] is intensely private as it connects a person’s identifying information with the prescription drugs they use.”

The Utah detective failed to get a warrant, and therefore violated the Fourth Amendment. As the ACLU’s brief explains, that means the court should throw out the evidence illegally gathered by police. If the Fourth Amendment means anything, it means that police cannot have free rein to flagrantly violate our medical privacy rights without judicial oversight or probable cause.

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Anonymous paramedic

Their basic disrespect for EMS in TOTAL is shocking. A few weeks ago we arrived at a call where police needed to "get control" of a man who was bleeding from the head, totally confused about where he was but also being violent.
So the first thing they say is "We need to get tasers, we're going to have to tase him."
I couldn't stop myself from showing my alarm. I said "Are you out of your MINDS? You're going to taser a person with head trauma? You can't taser a person with head trauma (which comes with possible neurological implications.)
The officer I asked seemed oblivious to what I said, almost willfully so if you ask me, but their supervisor listened to us and switched it to spraying the suspect with something that's supposed to subdue him, which it didn't because he was also on some dangerous uncontrolled drug.
They refuse to listen to anything we say though. Our Senior Paramedic told the lady officer that having the suspect's blood on her would only be a problem if she had "open cuts on her." But at the end of the call she was still telling people she didn't know if she had some disease.
I thought 'If you're going to think what you want even after we tell you it isn't that way, you might as well not even ASK us.'

Anonymous

And things like this are why America needs the ACLU. Thanks guys!

Anonymous

What ever happened to HIPAA here? Prescription drug information is a protected class of information that typically takes a judge's sign off on a warrant to search to access. I'd say the cop violated Federal Law here at first blush.

Anonymous

Thank you for the support of this case, the cop in question has violated all 480 UFA employees 4th amendment rights. Good luck to this
firefighter.

Ryan Lankford

And the government war against sick people continues, all because the DEA needs some kind of boogeyman to chase in order to justify their existence. I guess going after meth dealers and coke kingpins is just too hard for them to handle.

Demonhype

Why should this be surprising or even upsetting? Every time you pee in a cup for your employer/potential employer you are giving away sensitive private medical information anyway. They have been caught using urine samples for this purpose: in 1988, the WA police actually had all the employees drug tested, but used the samples to run pregnancy tests on all the female workers. You don't need a warrant to find out these things about your employees, all you have to do is declare a companywide random drug test. Why hasn't anyone bothered to notice this before? Most Americans routinely submit to a much more intimate and invasive violation of privacy without ever giving it a second thought.

Anonymous

Demonhype --- The Fourth Amendment protects from government intrusion, and not private individuals or companies.

Anonymous paramedic

Oh they only care about HIPAA when a concerned family member is out of their minds with worry and then we have to tell them that unless they're the exact person named on the patient's list of whom to contact that they can't have the information.
But HIPAA flies out the window when it's Big or even LITTLE Brother who decides they want to go snooping around in people's medical records.
Or so it seems to me.

My brother was at Fort Hood during the first shooting, where 31 people were injured and 13 dead, but they wouldn't give me a DAMN bit of information because I wasn't "the exact person named in his file for who to tell whether he was all right," and the person he named is on a no-talk basis with me so I had to wait an ungodly amount of time just to see if he was dead, injured or okay.
It was totally disgusting and wholly inappropriate to leave a family hanging in the wind, waiting to see if he was one of the ones who was all right.

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