Firefighters appeal lawsuit over prescription drug database
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Two Utah firefighters asked a federal appeals court to revive their lawsuit against state authorities who the men claim falsely accused them of prescription drug fraud after a warrantless search of a state prescription drug database.
Criminal charges were later dismissed, but lawyers for the two firefighters argue that giving police unfettered access to records of all prescription drugs dispensed to patients is unconstitutional.
More than 40 states have similar databases, and many don’t require police to get a warrant to search the listings, said attorney Scott Michelman of the group Public Citizen.
“What’s at stake is whether law enforcement can access an individual’s prescription records whenever they want, whenever they have a hunch or they want to go on a fishing expedition,” he said.
Utah has since passed a law requiring police to get a warrant before they can search the database. Still, the case involving the firefighters could set a precedent for other states in the region if the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rules in their favor, Michelman said.
Firefighters Ryan Pyle and Marlon Jones say police in Cottonwood Heights suspected employees might have been involved with a series of drug thefts from ambulances in 2013. Police decided to run the names of all 480 paramedics, firefighters and other employees at Salt Lake County’s Unified Fire Authority through the database to see if any might have a drug problem, according to court documents.
Pyle and Jones weren’t linked to the thefts, but detectives alleged they were taking too many painkillers and other medications without telling their doctors and filed prescription drug fraud charges against them.
Pyle and Jones say all the drugs were properly prescribed for various injuries, operations and other maladies. The charges were later dismissed.
The firefighters sued the city of Cottonwood Heights, arguing that putting their names into the database without probable cause was like kicking down their doors and rifling through their medicine cabinets.
The database is designed to help identify people who abuse prescription drugs.
Defense lawyers for Cottonwood Heights pointed to several court decisions that found police can search such records without violating people’s rights. A federal judge had tossed out the lawsuit in October and the firefighters appealed on Wednesday
An attorney for Cottonwood Heights did not return calls seeking comment on the appeal.
The case helped spur Utah lawmakers to require police to get a warrant before using the database. The law sponsored by Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, was passed last year.
He cited the ambulance theft case as well as a 2011 case of a former Vernal police detective accused of accessing the database to steal a couple’s painkillers. The detective was fired and pleaded no contest.
Nearly 20 other states also require police to jump through some hoops to access the databases.
Police in Utah have drastically cut use of the database in the year since the law was passed, according to a state auditor.
Officers told auditors that’s because it takes time to get a warrant.