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Salt Lake City attorney: Searching medical records of public servants sans warrant legally dubious

A case of the missing morphine— that’s what’s led law enforcement officials in Utah to search the prescription drug records of 480 public servants, including paramedics and firefighters to try to determine the culprit. But sneaking around without a warrant into personal medical histories may land the police department on shaky legal ground, a Salt Lake City attorney working with counsel from the American Civil Liberties Union reports, and one officer’s “hunch” resulted in felony charges unrelated to the morphine theft case, this online news report announces.

The ACLU denounced the “dragnet search as shocking” and “a disregard for basic legal protections” to let law enforcement rifle through private data so easily—because in Utah, it’s incredibly easy. While other states allow similar databases of public service personnel to be accessed by authorities without probable-cause warrants, Utah’s law plays it fast and loose with the information, letting officers access the database at any time they are “engaged as a specific duty of their employment enforcing laws.” The Utah ACLU representative commenting on these events says that’s not enough privacy, and results in unjust accusations, such as the one experienced by Ryan Pyle.

Pyle was charged with prescription fraud charges that were unrelated to the original investigation, and his Salt Lake City attorney is asking for those charges to be thrown out. A warrantless search yielding information that in no way connects Pyle with the emergency vehicle prescription theft shouldn’t implicate him for other activities, his lawyer is contending.

Utah Assistant Attorney General Lana Taylor disagrees. Stating that an “individual’s right to privacy in his medical records is not absolute,” the prosecutors in Pyle’s case are arguing that the prescription drug database was created for just such cases like Pyle’s. While Pyle’s Salt Lake City attorney is arguing his right to medical privacy, other public officials are arguing his abdication of that privacy when agreeing to become a public servant. Working for the government, and paid with the people’s tax money, means giving up some of those privileges, they say.

The Utah ACLU representative and Pyle’s Salt Lake City attorney look at it from an issue of constitutionality, and report that the charges brought against Pyle violate the principles of both Utah’s and the U.S. Constitutions. With the “case law on the topic all over the book nationwide,” it’s worthwhile to note that in a most recent case in Oregon, a federal judge required warrants to search prescription drug records.

The concept of “controlled substance” use in Utah through prescription drug records is pretty broad, too, according to the ACLU lawyer. And because a patient’s prescription drug history can reveal diagnoses or “even the stage or severity of her disorder or disease,” it’s remotely possible Pyle could have an employment suit on his hands. Still in its beginning stages, it’s uncertain where Pyle’s case will go, but it will likely be appealed if a ruling is issued against him. The maximum sentence of five years in prison for the prescription fraud felony charge is something has yet to be determined.

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