The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency does not need a court order to subpoena a prescription drug database kept by the state of Oregon, but the ruling did not specify whether those subpoenas would violate constitutional protections.
The ruling reverses a 2014 judge's ruling finding that the agency must obtain warrants to access the database, which Oregon uses to help healthcare providers identify abuse. The appeals panel, however, said nothing prevents Oregon from challenging individual warrantless subpoenas in court "in light of the particularly important privacy interest implicated here."
The ruling did not resolve the question of whether the DEA's administrative subpoenas violate constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure outlined in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protecting people against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program sued the DEA in 2012 over the administrative subpoenas for patient prescription records because under state law police must get court orders to check the database. The DEA argued that the federal Controlled Substances Act allowed it to access the information without a warrant.
The American Civil Liberties Union joined in the case to litigate the broader issue of whether the requests violated Fourth Amendment protections.
The appeals court said that the ACLU does not have standing in the case and did not address that issue.
A similar Utah case may help to resolve that question, said Nathan Wessler, the ACLU attorney who argued the Oregon appeal.
The case began in 2012 when the DEA sought the records of one patient and two prescribing physicians as a part of an investigation. The state argued it could not be compelled to disclose health information about a patient without a federal court order.
Oregon lawmakers approved the prescription database in 2009 and it became fully operational two years later. A pharmacy must electronically report information about the quantity and type of drugs dispensed, identifying information about patients and the names of doctors prescribed medication.
About 7 million prescription records are uploaded to Oregon's system annually, according to the 2014 opinion on the case written by U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty.