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

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