For the first time, a federal judge has ruled that patients have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their drug prescription records, and that law enforcement must obtain a warrant in order to search such information. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oregon represented a group of Oregon patients and a physician in the lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“This is a victory for privacy and for the constitutional rights of anyone who ever gets drug prescriptions,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who argued the case last month. “The ruling recognizes that confidential medical records are entitled to the full protection of the Fourth Amendment. The court rightly rejected the federal government’s extreme argument that patients give up their privacy rights by receiving medical treatment from doctors and pharmacists.”
In 2009, the Oregon legislature created the Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a database that tracks prescriptions for use as a public health tool by physicians and pharmacists. The state included privacy protections, including a warrant requirement for police access. However, the DEA claimed that a federal law allowed them to access the database using only an “administrative subpoena,” which does not involve a judge or require the government to show probable cause.
“We opposed creating a massive database that would contain the prescription records of Oregon patients and physicians who had done nothing wrong,” said David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. “Nevertheless, we helped convince Oregon lawmakers to add important safeguards to the program, and we’re pleased that the court has recognized the importance of protecting medical privacy.”
The State of Oregon filed a lawsuit against the DEA, and the ACLU joined the case. Today’s ruling granted the ACLU’s motion for summary judgment and denied the federal government’s motion, with the result that the DEA must get a warrant to access the prescription records in Oregon.