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Fire chief sues over alleged misuse of Utah’s prescription database

First Published      Last Updated Apr 24 2015 10:48 pm

Complaint » State-managed list includes all prescriptions and other personal information.

A state database that records every one of Utah residents' drug prescriptions and other personal information, and which provides police nearly unfettered access, violates patients' privacy and constitutional rights, according to a new federal court lawsuit.

Marlon Don Jones, assistant chief of the Unified Fire Department in Salt Lake County, is suing the city of Cottonwood Heights over police access to the database that led to criminal charges against him that were eventually dropped.

The lawsuit says the use of the Controlled Substance Database, established by the Utah Legislature in 1995, collects patients' names, date of birth, address, names of treating physicians, the visit to the doctor, what medication was prescribed and the dosage.




Law officers are given complete access to the database maintained by the Department of Commerce with the only requirements being that they are certified officers and authorized by a federal, state or local law enforcement agency, according to the lawsuit.

State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, successfully sponsored a bill in the 2015 General Session of the Utah Legislature that, among other provisions, requires law officers to obtain a search warrant in order to get access to the database.

Police have to show probable cause to a judge in order to obtain a warrant to search a house if the occupant refuses them permission, said Friday.

"My contention was just because they're searching your electronic database doesn't make it any different," Weiler said. "It's still your private medical information."

Jones cried several times as he testified in February before a Senate committee, telling lawmakers about the investigation, his arrest and court appearances, and the effect on him and his family.

Police began an investigation in 2013 after the Unified Fire Authority discovered that medications had been taken from ambulances at several stations, including Cottonwood Heights.

Detective James Wood of the Cottonwood Heights police, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, accessed the database and used it to search records of all 480 fire department employees in order to find possible suspects, according to the lawsuit.

He suspected Jones after he found that Jones had used three different doctors for treatments. Jones was arrested in May of 2013 on 14 felony charges.

But at a preliminary hearing in 3rd District Court, three doctors testified that they didn't believe Jones had a drug problem and saw no "red flags" of addiction, the lawsuit says. The case was dropped last year after Jones provided his medical records to prosecutors.

The lawsuit says the search of Jones' prescription records violated constitutional protections of privacy and due process. It also argued that the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act was violated because the database is, in effect, a consumer reporting agency that failed to fulfill the act's requirements for disclosure of information.

Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore, who also is named as a defendant, said his city is not liable because the detective's search of the database was legal under Utah law.

"If they're really alleging violation of constitutional rights by allowing access to that database, the lawsuit should have been directed at the state," he said.

Cullimore also said allegations are false that, as a member of the governing board of the Unified Fire Authority, he provided personnel information to police investigators.

A previous lawsuit over abuse of the database was dismissed in federal court. Two Vernal residents had sued that city and a police officer after the officer used the database to discover they had prescriptions to pain medication and then stole pills from them.

But U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart ruled that while a constitutional violation had occurred, the city could not have detected a problem with the officer involved beforehand and that its training of officers in use of the database was adequate. The officer entered into an settlement with the couple, court documents say.

tharvey@sltrib.com

 

AT A GLANCE

Amendments to Utah’s drug database law

State Sen. Todd Weiler sponsored SB119 in the 2015 Legislature to amend the law governing the Controlled Substance Database. The changes:

» Requires law officers to obtain a search warrant to access the database

» Allows a person to request his or her records from the database

» Permits a patient to correct erroneous information in the database

» Authorizes a patient to obtain a list of people who have had access to their information except when they are subject to an investigation

» Makes it a criminal offense to negligently or recklessly release database information


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