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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Police have drastically cut down their use of a database of Utah prescription drug users in the wake of a new law requiring authorities to get a warrant, according to a state audit released Tuesday.
Utah police agencies searched the database an average of 238 times a month from May 2014 until the new law took effect in May 2015, according to the report from the legislative auditor's office.
After the warrant law took effect, police only used the database about 12 times a month.
That's a good thing, according to House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.
"I think we're erring on the side of people's privacy," he said after the report was presented to a legislative committee.
It's important to keep people's health information private, so if police need to look up someone's prescriptions, they should have to meet a high standard first, Hughes said.
The law was passed following the 2011 case of a Vernal police detective who was accused of accessing the database to steal a couple's painkillers. The detective was fired and pleaded no contest.
Lawmakers also cited a case from 2013, where Cottonwood Heights police searched the names of Salt Lake County fire department employees after some drugs disappeared from ambulances.
Police zeroed in on an employee who was arrested and charged with 14 felony drug counts because investigators thought he had an unusual number of prescriptions for controlled substances. The charges were dismissed after a judge ruled there wasn't enough evidence and the person's doctors testified that he never sought the prescriptions and didn't show signs of dependency or abuse.
Hughes said even if lawmakers have only heard of a few egregious cases, it's enough to show the need to tighten access.
The database lists all prescription drugs dispensed to patients in Utah. It doesn't include prescriptions for drugs used within a hospital or doctor's office.
Utah's Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing maintains the list. It is designed to prevent doctor shopping by those who may be addicted to prescription drugs or to ensure that doctors don't accidentally prescribe too many drugs.
Almost all states have a similar system and 19 states require police to jump through some hoops to access it.
Lawmakers asked the legislative auditor's office to review the use of the databases after the law was passed.
Before the law, police and prosecutors had access to the database and could search it themselves. Now officers and prosecutors must get a search warrant and send a request for information to the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.
The law enforcement search must be related to the name of a specific person who is the subject of an investigation.
Police told auditors they don't use the database as much now because it takes time to get a warrant and it can be difficult to establish that they have a justified reason for a search.
Before the new law, officers used the database to establish a probable cause to arrest someone.
In the legislative auditors report, investigators reviewed 40 random cases of police use of the database before the new law. In 16 cases, they concluded that the database appeared to help an investigation. But in 24 cases, the auditor's office said police use was questionable and may not have been what lawmakers intended when they created it.
Those questionable uses included routine searches for inmates on probation and parole. Auditors also found four cases of law enforcement conducting background checks on potential new hires; three cases of investigators looking for clues to a cause of death; and five cases in which police couldn't explain why they used the database.
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