HB 117: Changing Access to Prescription Drug Records
This bill never received a vote.
Update: We have had conversations about this bill with Representative Brooks, whose intent has been to find a way for law enforcement to more easily access information about potential abuse of opioid prescriptions. He has decided to abandon this bill for the 2020 legislative session. This is a controversial topic with many stakeholders who feel passionately about this issue, and we have offered to continue dialogue in the future—as we have with other interested legislators in the past—about potential reforms that can maintain privacy protections for innocent individuals.
In 2013, some employees of the Unified Fire Authority (Utah’s largest fire agency) discovered that some vials of morphine stored in ambulances at a few fire stations had been emptied of their contents. The police were alerted, as theft was suspected—but instead of interviewing people who had access to those ambulances, the Cottonwood Heights Police Department searched and downloaded the prescription drug histories of every employee of the Unified Fire Authority. No warrant was issued in this search.
A related lawsuit filed afterward sought to suppress the evidence, arguing that the warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment. The court ruled in the defendant’s favor, and the state dropped its appeal; this was a victory for the Fourth Amendment.
Prosecutors and law enforcement officials, unsurprisingly, want to obtain this type of health information without a warrant in order to find probable cause to obtain a warrant.
In response, Senator Todd Weiler sponsored a bill in 2015 that required a warrant to access this medical information. But police officers have resisted this law. In 2018, Representative Ray Ward sponsored a bill that narrowly passed the House, and which failed in the Senate, which would have undermined the warrant requirement.
The latest proposal comes from Representative Walt Brooks, who is sponsoring House Bill 117 this year. As currently drafted, the bill removes the requirement that officers need to obtain a warrant to access prescription drug information for an individual as long as
- the officer is a “designated officer” who investigates violations of drug laws;
- the officer has registered with the government as the “designated officer” for their agency;
- the officer’s agency has a “memorandum of understanding” with the government agency that manages the database; and
- the officer follows any other rules created to govern this warrantless access.
While we sympathize with the desire to better investigate cases involving opioid abuse or other dangerous drug use, this is private information that is warehoused in a government’s database against the patient’s will; state law requires this information to be collected into the database.
Law enforcement should have the same restrictions on this digital data as they would if they wanted to look into a person’s physical medicine cabinet at home: they should have to get a warrant.