This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Law enforcement searches of Utah's Controlled Substance Database have plummeted since the Legislature required police agencies to get a warrant to access the records on the heels of alleged abuse of the system, according to an audit released Tuesday.
The Utah legislative auditor general found that police queried the database 2,851 times in the year before the law changed, or 231 times a month. In the six months since, there were just 71 queries, or fewer than a dozen a month, marking a 95 percent drop in searches.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who sponsored the bill that clamped down on the use of the database, said he was surprised the drop was so sharp and that the program will need to be monitored to make sure it is working right.
"Either it means that there was a lot of abuse going on or frivolous searches that are no longer happening, or it means we've tightened the lid so tight that law enforcement can no longer use a tool that might be valuable to them," he said. "If we made it too difficult to use, we may need to revisit it. Based on this report, though, I don't think we have tightened it too much."
The single most dramatic change in an agency use of the database was Salt Lake City's adult probation and parole office, which had 225 searches the previous year and none in the past six months.
• The Logan Police Department was the third most prolific user of the database, accessing it 149 times in the previous year, but just once in the past six months
• Similarly, Layton police searches declined from 126 searches to one, Salt Lake City police fell from 84 to one and the Salt Lake County district attorney's office dropped from 79 times to none.
• Even in sparsely populated Kane County, the sheriff's office searched the database 28 times in the previous year, but just once since the warrant requirement
The Legislature created the Controlled Substance Database in 1995 to track prescriptions issued by doctors to identify potential misuse or overprescribing. But earlier this year, the Legislature passed SB119 after hearing allegations that some police departments were accessing the database without valid reasons.
An investigator with the Cottonwood Heights Police Department, for example, ran queries on all 480 employees of the Unified Fire Authority after prescription drugs disappeared from some ambulances. Assistant Fire Chief Marlon Jones was flagged and later charged because he had been given prescriptions by three doctors, but the charges were dropped after doctors testified Jones didn't have a drug problem and Jones sued the city for violating his privacy.
The case was dismissed last month because the city has immunity from certain claims. Jones has appealed the decision.
And in Vernal, two residents sued the city after an officer allegedly used the database to identify prescriptions they had received in order to steal the pills. That lawsuit was dismissed.
The auditor looked at a random sample of 40 searches of the database that were done before the new law took effect and said it was unclear whether 24 of them were proper uses of the database, as it was intended.
At least eight states have similar requirements that law enforcement officers show probable cause and get a warrant to query the database, according to the audit. But some officers and prosecutors with the attorney general's office believe the standard may put the bar too high.
One attorney told auditors that the database searches used to be used to establish probable cause during the investigation and now officers have to establish that in advance. One officer suggested there should be an administrative process with internal oversight in order to access the data, but the warrant requirement was too onerous.
The requirement for law enforcement to get a warrant to access the database also created a conflict with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which requested information from the database in June, but the state rejected the request because the DEA had not obtained a warrant.
The DEA has said obtaining a warrant hampers its investigations and has considered suing the state over the requirement. Last year, Oregon won a lawsuit by the DEA over a similar requirement for a warrant. The DEA has appealed that ruling.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the Utah medical examiner's office use of the database went from 246 searches in the previous year to zero after the change in law. The medical examiner's office continues to access the state's prescription drug database frequently, just as they always have in cause of death investigations. Unlike other law-enforcement agencies that under a new law must obtain a search warrant, the medical examiner's staff are physicians who have full access to the information. The Tribune reported otherwise based on information contained in a legislative audit.