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Drug Enforcement Administration v. Utah Department of Commerce

Last Update: October 13, 2016

The ACLU and its Utah affiliate filed a motion to intervene in a case between the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the state of Utah over the DEA’s efforts to obtain confidential prescription records from a state database without a warrant. The court granted the motion in October and the case is continuing with the ACLU as a party.

In 1996, Utah began tracking records of prescriptions for certain drugs dispensed by pharmacies, compiling these records into the Utah Controlled Substance Database (UCSD). Although the program was initially intended to help physicians prevent drug overdoses and abuse by their patients, it was discovered in 2014 that a Utah detective used the UCSD to access all 480 employees of Utah’s largest fire agency without judicial oversight, and improperly charged at least two employees with crimes they did not commit. In response, Utah’s legislature in March 2015 amended the law that regulates access to the UCSD, requiring law enforcement officers to obtain a probable cause warrant from a court before they can gain access to the database.

Despite Utah’s law requiring a warrant, the DEA has been using administrative subpoenas to request access to drug records in Utah’s prescription database. Unlike a search warrant issued by a neutral magistrate upon a finding of probable cause, an administrative subpoena is granted based on a much lower standard — it can be issued by the government when an agent merely believes that the records will be “relevant or material” to an investigation. Because prescription drug records can reveal highly sensitive information about us, the ACLU has intervened in this case to make sure that the Fourth Amendment protects our most private medical information.

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