Drug Enforcement Administration agents have been accessing personal medical files without a warrant, generating a backlash from doctors and privacy advocates who say the practice is intrusive and unconstitutional -- and have taken the agency to court.
“It’s just not right,” Texas attorney Terri Moore said.
The controversial record searches are part of the government's effort to crack down on illegal “pill mills” and prescription drug abuse. But they've set up a clash over privacy rights, and a legal battle is now playing out in the 5th and 9th Circuit appeals courts. Lower courts have issued conflicting rulings to date, with one backing the DEA and another demanding the agency get warrants if it wants to look at patient records.
The DEA has been able to access medical files as well as private state prescription drug records that track patient medical histories by using what are known as administrative subpoenas, which unlike warrants signed by a judge do not require probable cause. Further, critics say the agency has “tricked” doctors into handing over documents by showing up with state medical board officials for searches and not identifying themselves, in turn giving the impression they're with the board.