ACLU Joins Lawsuit to Defend Confidential Medical Records from Warrantless Federal DEA Searches
SALT LAKE CITY— The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the national ACLU have filed a motion in federal court challenging the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to obtain Utahns’ private prescription records from the Utah Controlled Substance Database (UCSD) without a warrant. Last month, the DEA sued the state of Utah in an attempt to circumvent a state law requiring a warrant for such access, and today the ACLU filed a motion to intervene in the case on behalf of Utahns whose prescription records are in the database.
The ACLU of Utah is seeking to intervene in the case on behalf of the patients and physicians among its approximately 1,700 members. The ACLU also represents Equality Utah, an LGBTQ advocacy organization concerned about the privacy of transgender individuals who are prescribed hormones and other medications, and IAFF Local 1696, the union representing Unified Fire Authority firefighters and paramedics who have experienced violation of their prescription privacy.
“Utah law and the Fourth Amendment clearly require the DEA, and any other law enforcement agency, to get a warrant before searching through the highly private and personal ‘digital medicine cabinets’ of thousands of Utahns,” said ACLU of Utah Legal Director John Mejia. “Utah’s law was passed with overwhelming support by Utah legislators and the general public, who clearly appreciate the need to protect the privacy of all Utahns from warrantless government searches.”
The UCSD contains information about any patient who takes medications prescribed by their physicians that are appropriate for their medical conditions and are listed under the Controlled Substance Act. This includes information on thousands of Utahns who are prescribed medication to treat chronic and acute pain, anxiety and panic disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and many other conditions.
In 2015, Utah enacted SB 119, “Prescription Database Revisions,” in response to the baseless criminal prosecution of several Unified Fire Authority firefighters and paramedics in Salt Lake County. Their names were among those of hundreds of Unified Fire Authority emergency responders whose private medical prescriptions were examined, without a warrant, by local law enforcement. The firefighters targeted in the indiscriminate database search were unfairly prosecuted for their legal use of prescription painkillers, made necessary by injuries sustained in the course of their public service. The ACLU of Utah and national ACLU have filed “friend of the court” briefs in support of paramedic Ryan Pyle’s and assistant fire chief Marlon Jones’s legal efforts to challenge the inappropriate seizure of his medical information in the sweeping warrantless search of the UCSD.
Despite Utah’s law requiring a warrant before law enforcement agents can access sensitive prescription records in the CSD, the DEA has been using administrative subpoenas, without judicial oversight and without demonstrating probable cause, to request the records. The ACLU will argue that use of these subpoenas violates the Fourth Amendment, and that a search warrant is required instead.
The ACLU won a similar lawsuit in Oregon in 2014, when a federal judge issued an unprecedented ruling stating that patients have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their drug prescription records, and that under the Fourth Amendment law enforcement must obtain a warrant in order to search such information. The DEA appealed that ruling, which is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The ACLU’s motion to intervene is available at: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/drug-enforcement-administration-v-ut…
Other documents relevant to this case can be found at: https://www.aclu.org/cases/drug-enforcement-administration-v-utah-department-commerce
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.