Senate bill would allow Vermont police access to private prescription drug information without a warrant

Prescription drugs. Photo by Alissa Walker

Prescription drugs. Photo by Alissa Walker

The Vermont Senate voted Wednesday to allow police more streamlined access to prescription drug data for law enforcement.

In an 18-11 vote, the Senate shifted course from the House and stripped a requirement that police obtain a warrant before they target drug criminals through the state’s online prescription drug database.

In the Senate version, police would get a report from the Department of Health with basic information about an individual’s prescription history. The access is limited to ongoing investigations and certain scheduled drugs that are prone to abuses.

The House and Senate must reconcile the two versions for the bill to pass.

Sen. Dick Sears, who chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary, says law enforcement officials need easier access to information to abate the state’s epidemic of opiate abuse.

The House bill requires police to get a warrant before they access personal information on the statewide database of prescription drug records.

Under the Senate Judiciary committee’s proposal, which the Shumlin administration supports, law enforcement officers could request information from the Department of Health that would let them streamline an investigation.

“What our amendment does is help law enforcement connect the dots,” Sears said.

Under a law passed in 1968, police can walk into a pharmacy and ask for individual pharmacy records without a warrant. The judiciary committee’s proposal would allow specially trained drug diversion investigators access to personal information from the Department of Health based on “an investigation with a reasonable, good faith belief that it could lead to the filing of criminal proceedings.”

The investigators would not have access to the database per se, but the Health Department would be required to turn over the name and date of birth of a person suspected of diverting prescription drugs and pharmacies and doctors who prescribed those drugs.

The Vermont American Civil Liberties Union and some lawmakers have attacked this new level of police access to private health records. In 2006, when the state created the online prescription database, it specified that police would not have access to the information.

Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said the bill will undermine citizens’ right to privacy, and it could hurt efforts in 2014 to create an online insurance marketplace that will contain personal health records of thousands of Vermonters. He said allowing police access to the prescription drug monitoring system is disingenuous.

“It breaks a promise we made six years ago that police would not have access to this information,” Baruth said. “I don’t see how with a straight face going to go to Vermonters in two years and say we’ll take care of medical records. We’ll keep them confidential.”

Some senators opposed the bill not because they were worried about what information police might obtain, but because they said they believed the loosening of privacy restrictions skirts the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden, expressed her concerns with the warrantless access to information.

“I’m concerned about the slow, slippery erosion of civil rights as we move away from having warrants as we access information,” Lyons said.

Sears, whose committee has taken testimony on the dangers of prescription drugs throughout the session, said he would like greater access, but the compromise struck by the Shumlin administration walked the fine line of protecting privacy and helping law enforcement deal with the state’s prescription drug abuse problem.

“We believe that we have an epidemic,” he said. “I personally would support greater access.”

Sears said his committee’s proposal was a reasonable compromise. He said allegations that police would have free rein of the database are unfounded.

“There never was any discussion about unfettered access by law enforcement,” he said. “No one that I know of ever said law enforcement should receive unfettered access.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell also supports the judiciary committee’s amendment.

He said he hoped other senators realized the dangers of prescription drugs. The commissioner of the Department of Public Safety said earlier this session that more people died from prescription drug overdoses in Vermont last year than from car accidents and murders combined.

“The thought that we should not make it easy for police officers or law enforcement does not sit well with me and I don’t think it would sit well with siblings or parents of people who have died as a result of drug abuse,” he said.

Campbell is a former police officer.

Alan Panebaker

Comments

  1. Christian Noll :

    Go to Canada to get your prescription medication.

    It’s affordable and they don’t violate your Civil Liberties.

    In the US, the “War” on Drugs has brought in too many profits and generated too much business to pay any attention to your fourth amendment rights.

    In the US, the police fight epidemics.

  2. Pat Goudey OBrien :

    The principle should not be whether we make it “easy” for police to do their job. We should not put unwarranted obstacles in the way of police working to keep our society safe — their role is critical and I support the work they do — but we should also NOT allow unwarranted access to our private information.

    If there’s really a reasonable expectation that inspection of these records will lead to filing of charges, then it should also be reasonable that a warrant could be acquired from a reasonable judge. A “good faith belief” is a scary thing when you’re just going to trust that the cop looking at your private records doesn’t have another agenda. (Because we know that no one who has access to information they’re not actually entitled to has ever abused that access, right?)

    So, the Health Department would have to turn over records of people “suspected” of behaving badly — based on what evidence provided to the Health Department that, indeed, such suspicions are extant? Because the police say so?

    This goes to the very HEART of our protection against unwarranted search and seizure. Thank you, Philip Baruth, for exercising your brain in this matter. I think others in the Legislature must have amended this bill while sleepwalking near the end of the session.

  3. Christian Noll :

    Thank you Pat. Well said.

    The Fourth Amendment is not a “Unwarranted” obstacle.

    Much of police work is not “Easy.” That amendment is there for a reason. It is a safeguard against something that once committed, cannot be taken back or “undone.”

    Police, particularly in a demographic such as Burlington, Vermont ARE NOT the safe gardians of personal or private healthcare information as one might think. In some cases, its like deliberately and selectively disseminating defamitory information to the “Court of public opinion.”

    Federally protected or not, they’ve blundered this numerous times with devestating consequences to peaceful, innocent tax payers. What’s a judge going to do once that happens?

    Comming up with “Probable Cause” is a part of police work.

    Thank you Philip Baruth and Virginia Lyons for “Connecting the dots.”

  4. Gary Murphy :

    Does this mean that, going forward, when any part of the Constitution makes police work harder it is okay to come up with a way to circumvent it?

  5. Barry Kade :

    What am I missing here? Or rather, what is Sen. Sears and the majority of the Vermont Senate missing?

    Article 11th. Search and seizure regulated

    That the people have a right to hold themselves, their houses, papers, and possessions, free from search or seizure; and therefore warrants, without oath or affirmation first made, affording sufficient foundation for them, and whereby by any officer or messenger may be commanded or required to search suspected places, or to seize any person or persons, his, her or their property, not particularly described, are contrary to that right, and ought not to be granted.
    ****************************************
    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

  6. David Dempsey :

    How much will this cost the state in lawsuits?

  7. Christian Noll :

    How ironic that in a state like Vermont, Public records go missing and private records go public.

  8. Our elected politicians passed a law while promising they would ensure our privacy was protected and police would not be given access to the database that law created. What a shock that down the road these same politicians would pass another law giving police access to that same database without a warrant or court order.

    We already had a system for dealing with requests from law-enforcement conducting an investigation and seeking information. The reason law enforcement has to go before a neutral judge and get a court order is to prevent abuse by persons in power and add a level of oversight. If someone could help me understand how accountability and oversight are preventing the police from doing their job, it would be super.

    Once again, our politicians and elected reps are screwing us. What a shock…

  9. paul forlenza :

    Great reporting – would be helpful if you included bill #s in your articles so we could easily look up the text of the bill and roll call votes in the legislative database.

  10. Dennis Shanley :

    The police will never have a problem getting a warrant for reasonable cause. Requiring a warrant will make their work more professional and protect Vermonters from the occasional “Bad Cop”.

    Allowing fishing expeditions of patient records in the Health Dept database after promising Vermonters that their health care information would be kept private will give opponents of health care reform a big club to beat the Administration and the Democratic Party over the head with.

    Let’s hope that House Dems stand firm and block passage of this ill conceived bill.

  11. Christian Noll :

    I think the police have become an “Epidemic” unto themselves.

  12. Dave Bellini :

    Strange, we treat the prescription opaite addicted individuals by prescribing them methadone, buprenorine or suboxone, also known as: prescription opiates. Vermont is becoming “Methadone Nation.”

  13. Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn comments, “Opiates are the biggest killer in Vermont. Last year, more people died in Vermont from opiates than from automobile crashes and murders combined.” This is really sad. All for prescription drug monitoring. People who have an addiction can get hel, its never too late. http://www.lakeviewhealthblog.com/opiate-addiction/opiates-the-number-one-killer-in-vermont/

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