Can police search your prescription drug records without a warrant?

That's the issue on appeal in Pyle v. Woods, in which Public Citizen filed the opening brief today in the Tenth Circuit.

Utah law directs the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing to create and maintain a state Controlled Substance Database of all prescriptions for controlled substances filled at pharmacies in the state. Pharmacists are required to report patients’ prescription records — including patient’s name, date, and drug dosage and quantity — to the Database without patients’ consent. These prescription records can reveal an array of private information about a person, such as whether he has AIDS, cancer, epilepsy, anxiety, depression, or a variety of other conditions. 

In 2013, to investigate the theft of medicines from ambulances belonging to a Salt Lake City-area fire department serving more than half a million people, local police used the Database to obtain, without a warrant or any individualized suspicion, the prescription drug records of all 480 employees of the fire department. Two of the employees were fire fighter Ryan Pyle and Assistant Fire Chief Marlon Jones. As a result of the search, defendants learned private facts about Pyle’s and Jones’s prescription history. Both men were taking pain medications as prescribed by their doctors for serious injuries or medical conditions – for Pyle, a motorcycle accident and complication arising from a dental surgery; for Jones, an on-the-job back injury, double knee replacements, and gout. Although Pyle and Jones were taking medications lawfully prescribed by their doctors, the police thought they were taking too many medications (but not, apparently, that they had anything to do with the theft from the ambulances). Based on the records obtained from the database, Pyle and Jones were suspended them from their jobs and subjected to lengthy prosecutions, which were all eventually dismissed.

Now Pyle and Jones are seeking compensation under the Fourth Amendment and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Their case has nationwide significance: Nearly every state has a database like Utah’s, and most do not require a judge to sign off before police access individual’s private prescription drug information.

Read our press release here.

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