The digital age is leading to the end of centuries-old constitutional privacy guarantees, as evidenced by the growth of Internet cloud-based data storage and electronic records, both of which are too easily accessible to prying eyes enabled by power-hungry politicians.
For instance, most Americans are unaware that state and federal governments are tracking – and accessing – your prescription medication records. Dozens of states allow federal and state law enforcement agencies free, warrantless access to databases that contain your drug history. What’s more, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is scrambling for authority to search databases in states where there are pharmaceutical privacy protections, reports Scripps News.
At present, 31 states grant authorities this kind of carte blanche access; only one state – Missouri – and the District of Columbia do not have prescription drug marketing programs. But these protections are likely to fall as well; Missouri’s program is currently on target for state approval, while D.C. officials say theirs will be up and running by year’s end.
Scripps News noted further that very often disclosures to police agencies of a person’s prescription drug history are done without actually notifying that person, thereby denying them any opportunity to object to the warrantless search or consult a lawyer. No court ever approves the records release that divulges medical histories that most people rightfully want to keep private.
State programs are in place to help track and analyze information that assists healthcare providers and pharmacists limit abuse of addictive medications like opioid painkillers. But patchy state statutes have left many privacy loopholes, giving police ready access to your records.
During a five-month investigation, Scripps News discovered that law enforcement officials gained access to at least 344,921 prescription histories of American citizens between 2014 and 2015 in states that do not require a court-ordered warrant, as per the Fourth Amendment. That’s more than six times the number of searches conducted by police in states that have enacted better privacy measures. But the access without court oversight – or any other oversight, really – is what concerns privacy advocates because it paves the way for abuse.
Why are police and elected officials okay with this?
Marlon Jones, an assistant fire chief with the Unified Fire Authority of Salt Lake County, Utah, told Scripps News that he could have lost his career and his family after he was falsely charged with felony crimes associated with doctor shopping, all because of a warrantless search by local police.
Police were investigating the theft of prescription drugs from regional ambulance services. Though they had no suspects, probable cause or warrant, an officer working the case logged onto the state’s controlled substances database and searched through prescription records for all 480 fire department workers.
“I had no idea that a police officer, just on a whim, could go into my medical records and then determine what’s appropriate, in his opinion,” Ryan Pyle, a firefighter paramedic whose prescription records were also accessed in the same warrantless search, told Scripps News.
Officers did not make any arrests in the theft of drugs, but rather focused on prescription histories of both Jones and Pyle, charging them with purchasing controlled substances under false pretenses – charges that had nothing at all to do with their investigation.
“It impacted every bit of our lives,” Jones noted, adding that he was put on suspension just a few months after having been promoted. “What (the investigator) did threatened to take everything I held dear.”
Pyle’s arrest came right as he and his wife were in the middle of adopting two boys. He said that when he was charged his immediate thought was that he was going to lose those two kids.
What’s really scary – and offensive – is that local officials had no problem with searching the prescription drug database without a warrant. So much for standing up for the Constitution.
“We would not do anything that would go beyond the bounds of what the law allows,” said Cottonwood Heights mayor Kelvyn Cullimore, Jr., hiding behind the state law that permitted the search. While he admitted that the search could have been more narrow, he claimed that if state law allows it, then it’s fine.
Except that it’s not alright. And there is – rightfully – a legal battle now brewing over the treatment of Jones, Pyle and many other Americans whose Fourth Amendment rights are being trampled on a daily basis.
Scott Michelman, an attorney for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based legal watchdog representing Pyle and Jones, said that allowing police to go on warrantless “fishing expeditions” through personal information, then making untrained medical judgments, has the potential to destroy people’s lives, and it ought to be stopped.
He’s right, of course.