Judge Rules Against the DEA in Prescription Drug Privacy Lawsuit

By:  Bob Adelmann
Judge Rules Against the DEA in Prescription Drug Privacy Lawsuit

A victory for the guarantee of privacy under the Fourth Amendment was claimed by the ACLU in its lawsuit against the DEA's administrative subpoenas in Oregon.

The favorable ruling sought by the ACLU against the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) in Oregon to impede the DEA's use of “administrative subpoenas” that override Oregon’s privacy guarantees was satisfying, but is likely to be challenged.

Said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler:

This is a victory for privacy and for the constitutional rights of anyone who ever gets drug prescriptions. The ruling recognizes that confidential medical records are entitled to the full protection of the Fourth Amendment.

The court rightly rejected the federal government’s extreme argument that patients give up their privacy rights by receiving medical treatment from doctors and pharmacists.

The suit, originally brought by Oregon’s prescription database program manager and four individuals, including a medical doctor, was later joined by the ACLU, which helped present, and win, the case against the DEA. In a tidy, succinct and well-reasoned decision, U.S. District Court Judge Ancer Haggerty saw the implications for violation of the plaintiff’s rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment and ruled accordingly.

In September 2012, the DEA issued two “administrative subpoenas” demanding that Oregon’s database program — Oregon’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) — release information on an individual patient using prescription drugs and on two physicians who were prescribing them. PDMP turned the DEA away, claiming that Oregon’s laws on privacy preempted the DEA’s demand. PDMP then filed suit, joined later by the ALCU.

The judge was careful to note numerous similar (but not identical) cases and their rulings to inform his decision, including Katz v. United States, wherein the Supreme Court ruled that “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se [implicitly] unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” He also cited United States v. Ziegler, where the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment “guards against searches and seizures of items or places in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

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