DEA takes Utah to federal court for access to prescription drug database

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Drug Enforcement Administration is asking a federal judge to enforce subpoenas served on Utah's Department of Commerce seeking access to the state's prescription drug database.

In court papers obtained by FOX 13, it appears the state of Utah is resisting the DEA's attempts.

The DEA revealed in a declaration it is investigating a "licensed medical professional" in the Salt Lake City area. The court filings do not reveal who is under investigation, but the federal agency claims that person has been prescribing a lot of pills to people who turn around and sell them. The DEA claims those people are members of a "criminal organization" with overseas ties.

As part of its investigation into that physician, the DEA served administrative subpoenas on Utah's Department of Commerce and the Utah Division of Professional Licensing for access to the controlled substance database. The state of Utah has apparently refused to grant federal agents access.

The Utah Department of Commerce building. (Image via Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

The Utah Department of Commerce building. (Image via Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

Utah Department of Commerce Executive Director Francine Giani declined to comment to FOX 13 on the subpoenas, referring the matter to the Utah Attorney General's Office. It also declined to comment, but is expected to reply in court filings by next month.

Access to the controlled substance database recently required a warrant after state lawmakers changed the rules. It followed an incident where Unified Fire Authority firefighters found their records accessed by police looking into missing medications.

Greg Skordas, a criminal defense attorney who represented an accused firefighter in that case, said the problem with the DEA request is it involves more than the specific doctor -- it would drag in patients, too.

"Administrative subpoenas are issued based on a very low standard. They're really just investigative," he said. "Whereas a warrant requires a higher level of what we call probable cause. You have to go to a judge and say, 'I have probable cause to believe the information is where I'm looking,' where an investigative subpoena you go to a judge and say, 'I'm curious.'"

Skordas said the DEA has tried this same tactic in other states, and said the battle between subpoena and warrant may go beyond federal court in Salt Lake City to appellate level courts to weigh in.

"It's all going to come to a head probably with the United States Supreme Court or with the circuit courts," he said.