Lawmakers, Courts Limit Police Access to State Rx Drug Databases

May 7, 2014 in News

Lawmakers and privacy advocates across the country are working to limit police access to databases of prescriptions for controlled substances, the Wall Street Journal reports.


According to the Journal, law enforcement officials for years have had “little trouble” gaining access to such databases to find records on individuals suspected of criminal activity. They argue that access to the databases is crucial to their efforts to combat prescription drug misuse.

However, lawmakers and privacy advocates have started to push back against their unrestricted access, arguing that the warrantless searches of the prescription drug databases violates patients’ privacy rights.

Restrictions by State

According to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, 48 states currently maintain electronic databases for prescription drugs that have a high potential for misuse, such as Oxycodone. Nebraska and Missouri are the only two states without such a database.

Many of those databases also include prescriptions for less-potent drugs.

Of those states with electronic databases:

  • One state, Vermont, denies prescription drug database access to law enforcement authorities;
  • One state, Pennsylvania, provides access to such databases upon request from law enforcement officials;
  • 17 states require law enforcement authorities to obtain judicial approval before searching the databases; and
  • 29 states require only an active investigation for law enforcement access.

Court Action

According to the Journal, law enforcement authorities have to obtain a warrant to access a person’s medical records from a health care provider, and courts are divided over whether the same standard should apply for prescription drug databases.

In February, a U.S. court in Oregon for the first time ruled in February that federal agents need a warrant to search the state’s database of prescription drugs. In that case, U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty said, that while “there is not an absolute right to privacy in prescription information … it is more than reasonable for patients to believe that law enforcement agencies will not have unfettered access to their records.”  

However, Scott Reed, chief of the Criminal Justice division in the Utah attorney general’s office, said that requiring law enforcement authorities to obtain a warrant could defeat the purpose of such databases. According to the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, the number of law enforcement searches of the state’s prescription drug database increased from 2,288 in 2007 to more than 19,000 in 2013.

Reed said, “It becomes another version of the chicken and the egg. … If I need probable cause to get into the database, then I can’t get into the database, and if I can’t get into the database, then I can’t show probable cause.”

According to the Journal, the Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue (Palazzolo, Wall Street Journal, 5/7).

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