Drug database access by police issue back in Senate

Dr. Harry Chen

Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Harry Chen. VTD/Alan Panebaker

A proposal by the Shumlin administration to allow law enforcement officers access to a prescription drug database has re-emerged in the Senate, where support for it is mixed.

In a joint hearing with the Senate committees on Judiciary and Health and Welfare, law enforcement officers tried to convince senators that allowing trained officers to request personal information surrounding controlled substances would help them deal with the state’s widespread prescription drug abuse problem.

The plan has support from the state departments of Health and Public Safety and law enforcement agencies.

Whether the two committees will support the governor’s proposal over a House bill that only allowed “indirect” access to the database with a warrant is yet to be seen. Members of both committees are split on the issue.

Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt told the committees Thursday that expedited access to the database would help curb illegal drug use.

“If we continue to operate in silos, we’re not going to solve the problem,” Schmidt said. “This is such an investigative tool to be able to connect the dots. It’s such an invaluable piece of equipment that we need access to it.”

Currently, police can access records of certain prescription drugs in physical pharmacies, but they do not have access to the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System that contains information on prescriptions from all over the state.

The governor’s proposal would allow specially trained officers to request disclosure of those records subject to showing a “bona fide specific investigation.”

The House Committee on Human Services wrestled for weeks with the idea of allowing more access before deciding police should be required to get a warrant before obtaining the information from the Department of Health.

The chairs of the two committees are split on the idea as well.

Sen. Claire Ayer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, said if she had to vote Thursday, she would have voted against the increased access.

She said when the Legislature voted to created the online database, the idea was to improve health care, not provide a tool for law enforcement. She said she was uncomfortable with allowing police access to such personal information without a warrant.

“I want to make sure people have the same rights about their personal information that I have about my home,” she said. “It still isn’t clear to me how hard it is to get a warrant. We haven’t heard anyone’s tried.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Sears, who chairs the Senate Committee on Judiciary, has supported increased access.

“We’ve been looking at this thing in isolation, and it’s all part of an overall effort to try to deal with a huge problem in this state that’s diversion of prescription drugs,” he said.

Sears said he wants to strengthen the law to limit the access to a few trained officers and look more deeply into the thresholds that would allow officers to ask for personal information.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, who sits on the Health and Welfare committee, said he supports the administration’s proposal.

“The reality is we have a huge problem,” he said. “We have to acknowledge the fact that we have a problem and we have to take the steps necessary to correct the problem. Unless you have something to hide, I don’t know why you’re afraid of a search warrant.”

Anthony Pollina, who also sits on the Health and Welfare committee, said the proposal makes him uneasy.

“I don’t see any reason why having to get a warrant would impede the ability of law enforcement to investigate these cases,” he said. “It makes me really uncomfortable. We have to balance people’s civil liberties with the ability of police to do investigations. This sets a precedent that in a digital age could send us down a very slippery, frightening slope.”

Pollina said the issue is further complicated since an amendment allowing for the decriminalization of marijuana, something he supports, could be added to the bill that would allow more police access to the online database, something he opposes.

Sen. Jeannette White, a member of the Judiciary committee, said she was still undecided but “we haven’t heard any reason why [police] can’t get a search warrant.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, who is a former police officer, also supports the amendment that would expand access to information on the database to law enforcement.

Allen Gilbert, the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has been fighting the idea of more police access on both sides of the Statehouse.

He said the proposal “is so boldly disrespectful of the Constitution that in police eyes we might as well not have the Fourth Amendment.”

Gilbert said police admit they generally do not have probable cause to get a warrant to access information in the database, so they are trying to get an exception to the requirement that would allow them to make an end run around the Constitution.

Alan Panebaker

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