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Police did not violate the rights of two firefighters when detectives accessed their prescription records without a warrant during an investigation, Utah authorities argued in a court fight involving prescription-drug databases that are kept in more than 40 states.
Utah's database helps curb a growing abuse problem and police didn't need a warrant to use it during the 2013 investigation into ambulance drug thefts, lawyers for the city of Cottonwood Heights contend in court documents.
Many states don't require police to get a warrant, and the firefighters said that's unconstitutional. They've asked a federal appeals court to revive their lawsuit against the city. Attorneys for the firefighters said it could set a precedent for how officers use the state databases that contain records of all prescription drugs dispensed to patients.
The city argued prescription drugs have long been a tightly regulated industry, and there's no expectation that those records are shielded from police.
"Without the database, cases brought against rogue doctors, acting more like pushers than medical professionals, would be difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute," city attorneys argued in court documents filed Monday.
But the firefighters contend those cases can still be prosecuted after police get a warrant to use the database. That prevents investigators from going on fishing expeditions, said their lawyer, Scott Michelman of the group Public Citizen.
Utah has since passed a law requiring police to get a warrant, partly as a result of the firefighters' case. Nearly 20 other states also require police to jump through some hoops to access the databases.
Before Utah's law went into effect last year, the database was being used thousands of times a year. The number of searches has plummeted since then, according to a state audit. Police told auditors it takes too long to get a warrant.
The firefighters, Ryan Pyle and Marlon Jones, said they were falsely accused of prescription drug fraud by Cottonwood Heights police investigating a series of drug thefts from ambulances.
Detectives suspected that employees might have been involved and ran the names of all 480 Unified Fire Authority employees through the database to see if any had a drug problem, according to court documents.
Pyle and Jones weren't linked to the thefts, but authorities alleged they were taking too many medications without telling their doctors and filed fraud charges against them. The charges were dismissed after the firefighters showed all the drugs were properly prescribed, but they said the charges nevertheless still put their careers and personal lives in jeopardy.