Rx database: a bitter pill
The Tramadol the doctor gave you to help to with that severe chronic back pain? The cops know about that. The Hydrocodone you took for a few weeks after your shoulder surgery? They know about that, too.
Really, they know about every controlled substance you’ve been prescribed over the past two decades, thanks to a vast database established and maintained by the state.
Known as Utah’s prescription drug monitoring system, the database was created in 1995 to help doctors and law enforcement monitor the use—and abuse—of prescribed controlled substances. Utah is one of 48 states with a system like this in place, but many other states require law enforcement to obtain a warrant or some sort of court order to access the database. Utah is not one of them.
Unlike your phone, financial and personal records, which require a search warrant to be accessed, police can look at your prescription drug history without probable cause. In fact, police officers need little more than a healthy curiosity to find out what painkillers you’re taking.
“You can determine exactly what’s going on with a person,” says attorney Tyler Ayres, noting unfettered access without a warrant can lead to abuse.
Ayres says this is a violation of the 4th Amendment, which protects us from unreasonable search and seizure. The law that created Utah’s drug database, he says, should be changed.
When the repository of electronic information was created, some expressed concern that the database could lead to a violation of people’s privacy. Mike Leavitt, the Utah governor at the time, wrote a strongly worded letter to state legislators lamenting that very idea.
Fast forward to 2012: Police began probing the disappearance of several drugs from stations that make up the Unified Fire Authority.
Cottonwood Heights police began their investigation in what, up to that point, had been an unprecedented approach. The department began looking for clues and accessed the records of more than 480 firefighters.
They never discovered who stole the drugs, but the broad dragnet raised suspicions about a few firefighters. UFA Deputy Chief Marlon Jones was one of them. The decorated veteran had a double-knee replacement in 2009 and had been dealing with chronic back pain since 2000. His three doctors prescribed different painkillers and muscle relaxers.
After inspecting his records in the database, police thought Jones’ prescription history was evidence of doctor shopping and filed 14 felony charges against him.
“It turned my whole family upside down,” says Jones. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Ok, this might cost me my family. I’m going to lose my standing in my church.’”
Firefighter Ryan Pyle had also been dealing with chronic back pain, and after a five-day stint in the hospital for an infected tooth, was also prescribed painkillers on several occasions. Police saw these prescriptions in the database and charged Pyle with one felony count.
“I felt like someone had just come to our front door, kicked down the door with no warrant, no cause, and went snooping through our medicine cabinet,” says Pyle.
Eventually the charges against both men were dropped. Jones’ doctors testified that they were aware he was being treated by multiple physicians and that Jones did not have a prescription drug problem.
The Attorney General decided to drop the charges against Pyle, in part, because of the way the evidence against him had been gathered.
“It’s a powerful tool,” says Assistant Utah Attorney General Scott Reed, who helped design the law that originally established the database. But, he says, it might be time to make some changes. “It would be prudent to reassess, especially now, when databases are of great sensitivity to the public and big brother oversight is becoming more and more of a concern.”
When 2News contacted Cottonwood Heights police for comment in this story, they responded with this statement:
“The Cottonwood Heights Police Department strictly complies with the governing law. Prescription drug abuse is an unfortunate reality in our community, killing more people than automobile accidents. Detectives appropriately use the [Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing] database as a legitimate investigative tool.
CHPD’s use of the DOPL website in this investigation was challenged by motions in two separate criminal enforcement actions and upheld by each respective magistrate. We understand the issue may be revisited by the legislature and will obviously support any statutory changes they make.”
Now, Pyle and Jones are back on the job in good standing. Although they are relieved their legal troubles are behind them, they are upset about the way they ended up in the crosshairs.
“I’m still pretty angry, and this needs to be fixed,” Jones says. “There needs to be some protection so some lazy cop can’t just get somebody’s name and see if they can find something out.”
Jones may soon get what he wants. State Senator Todd Weiler says he will put forth a bill in the upcoming legislative session that he hopes will require police to have a warrant before accessing records in the database.