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Utah Officials Violated Firefighters’ Constitutional Rights by Searching Prescription Records Without a Warrant, Public Citizen Tells 10th Circuit

March 23, 2016

Utah Officials Violated Firefighters’ Constitutional Rights by Searching Prescription Records Without a Warrant, Public Citizen Tells 10th Circuit

More Than 40 States Have Databases Containing Patients’ Prescription Records; Most Can Be Accessed Without Court Approval

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The constitutional rights of two Utah firefighters were violated when officials searched a state database of prescription records without a warrant, Public Citizen told the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a brief filed today.

The brief was filed in the cases of Salt Lake City-area firefighters Ryan Pyle and Marlon Jones. In 2013, the Unified Fire Authority discovered that opioids and other pain medications were missing from several of its ambulances. To investigate the crime, Utah law enforcement officials searched, without a warrant, the state prescription database, looking at the prescription records of 480 public paramedics, firefighters and other personnel, including Pyle and Jones.

The database, created in 1995, holds records of all prescriptions for controlled substances given to all Utah patients – including the patient name and the date, medication dosage and quantity of the prescription. Pharmacists are required to report this information to the database.

More than 40 states, including all six under the 10th Circuit’s jurisdiction, have prescription databases of this kind. In most states, including three under the 10th Circuit’s jurisdiction (New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming), law enforcement agencies can search the databases without judicial approval or oversight. Only about a dozen states require that patients be notified when their information in the database is accessed.

As a result of the search in Utah, law enforcement officials learned private facts about Pyle’s and Jones’ prescription history and used those facts to suspend them from their jobs and file charges related to wrongfully acquiring prescription medications from their doctors – charges that were later dropped.

At the time of the search, Utah allowed law enforcement officers to access the database without a warrant or any judicial review, which violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Pyle and Jones, Public Citizen argues. The wrongful nature of these searches was so obvious that in 2015, as a result of this case, the state legislature amended state law to require that law enforcement officers obtain a warrant before searching the database.

“It’s as if someone kicked down my door and rifled through my medicine cabinet,” said Jones, an assistant fire chief who has worked for Unified Fire since 1989. Jones was taking prescription medications for an on-the-job back injury, a double knee replacement and gout. The medications were legally prescribed by his doctors, and all of the doctors knew about each other’s treatment.

His co-worker Pyle was taking pain medication after a motorcycle accident and for an infection in connection with a dental procedure, and both doctors knew about each other’s prescriptions. Pyle’s biggest fear during prosecution was its potential effect on the pending adoption of a young child by him and his wife. “When a cop looks me up in the database, that’s my whole health history right there. If I’d have been convicted, they would have taken that child away from me. There’s nothing more terrifying than that,” Pyle said.

In 2015, Pyle and Jones separately sued the city of Cottonwood Heights, its mayor and a detective, but the state district court dismissed the claims. On appeal, Public Citizen argues that the defendants violated Pyle’s and Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights by searching their personal prescription records without a warrant, probable cause or individualized suspicion.

“Utah law officials went on a wild goose chase, violating nearly 500 people’s Fourth Amendment rights,” said Scott Michelman, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case. “Prescription histories are deeply private because of the facts they can reveal about a person’s medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS, epilepsy or psychological conditions.

“This case can set a precedent not only in Utah, but also in other states under the 10th Circuit’s jurisdiction,” added Michelman. “There is a strong consensus among the public, medical community and the courts that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their prescription records.”

The Ayres Law Firm of Draper, Utah, and the Legg Law Firm of San Mateo, Calif., serve as trial counsel for the plaintiffs and co-counsel on appeal.

Learn more about the case.