ACLU, firefighter’s union, LGBT rights group fight DEA over access to Utah’s drug database

SALT LAKE CITY -- A federal judge has allowed the ACLU, a Salt Lake County firefighter's union and a gay rights group to jump into a legal battle between the state of Utah and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

After a hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Pead granted the request by the ACLU, Salt Lake County Firefighter's Local 1696 and Equality Utah to intervene. However, the judge limited their involvement in the case by not allowing them to bring in new claims.

FOX 13 first reported in July that the DEA was taking Utah's Department of Commerce to court to try to enforce a subpoena it served on the state agency. The DEA is investigating a physician accused of dealing prescription drugs that are winding up on the streets and may be tied to organized crime, lawyers revealed in court Wednesday. It's seeking access to Utah's controlled substances database.

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)

The state has refused to cooperate with the DEA unless it obtains a warrant. The DEA argued that its subpoena should be sufficient.

"Law enforcement should be required to get a warrant," Jeremy Robertson, the president of Salt Lake County Firefighters Local 1696, told FOX 13 outside of court.

The union, which represents more than 400 Unified Firefighters, jumped into the case on behalf of its members whose prescription drug histories were looked at as part of an investigation into missing medications from ambulances. Two firefighters were accused of taking the drugs, but the case was ultimately dropped.

When it was revealed that hundreds of Unified Fire Authority employees had their records looked at by police as part of the investigation without a warrant, the Utah State Legislature changed the law.

"They had unfettered access to my prescription records," Robertson said. "My personal medicine cabinet to see what I might be taking."

Jeremy Robertson, the president of Salt Lake County Firefighters Local 1696. (Image by Pete Deluca III, FOX 13 News)

Jeremy Robertson, the president of Salt Lake County Firefighters Local 1696. (Image by Pete Deluca III, FOX 13 News)

Equality Utah has argued the violation of privacy could harm transgender people or reveal someone's HIV status.

In court, the DEA argued against allowing the groups into the dispute between Utah and the federal government. Attorney Kathryn Wyer told Judge Pead this would be the first time a subpoena enforcement action had intervening parties. She insisted they had the authority to get access to the database under a subpoena.

ACLU attorney Nate Freed Wessler said the DEA is trying to run around state law, which requires a warrant.

"What the DEA is doing now is using administrative subpoenas, which are really just pieces of paper that they fill out on their own authority and send to Utah demanding access to records. We think a judge should be involved first," he said.

The controlled substance database was created in 1995 and contains more than 70 million prescriptions issued to people by medical professionals for anything deemed a "controlled substance." Wessler said there were 5.2 million added each year on average.

"That's a mind boggling quantity of highly sensitive medical information," he said. "Its our position there should be strong protections under the constitution before law enforcement can get access."