Expanding police access to prescription drug records puts Pa. House, Senate at odds

    Pennsylvania’s House and Senate may be headed for a standoff over an effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse.A Senate committee approved a measure Wednesday for an expanded state database to track prescription drugs that would also give law enforcement greater access to the information. The amended measure would not require law enforcement to have a search warrant before accessing the system – something the House voted for last fall.

    The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, said the language is a result of at least six months of negotiation with the governor’s office and other interested groups. She thinks it will have Republican support in the House, even though a bipartisan majority approved adding the search warrant language on the floor of the chamber in October.”My understanding is that they understand that this is the bill that the administration wants,” said Vance. Lawmakers also know about growing public awareness of deaths attributed to drug overdose, she said, so there’s a “need to move it expeditiously.”

    Doctors, pharmacists, law enforcement, and even a federal agency have been pushing the plan as a way to crack down on prescription drug abuse. Pennsylvania’s prescription drug overdose rate is above the national average, according to a 2013 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Some senators are concerned about the lack of a search warrant requirement.

    “If I’m suspected of having a prescription drug abuse problem and law enforcement wanted to investigate that, I think they would need a warrant in order to search my home,” said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, at the Health and Welfare Committee meeting. He voted in favor of the amended bill.

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    The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania called the amended measure a “travesty.”

    “The boundaries of the Constitution don’t disappear just because the information is stored in a database,” said ACLU-PA lobbyist Andy Hoover.

    The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association worked to get the search warrant requirement out of the proposal.

    “If we have enough information to get a search warrant, we wouldn’t need to get into the database,” said PDAA President Dave Freed, also district attorney of Cumberland County. He said the negotiated Senate measure would not let police file criminal charges based solely on what they see in the prescription drug-monitoring database. And, he said, if prosecutors did use the database to arrest someone, it would be challenged.

    “You have to show in your search warrant or your arrest warrant, the provenance of the information – you’d have to show where it came from,” Freed said. “And if you’re saying, ‘I’m charging this person with possessing these drugs based on my look at this database,’ that’s going to get thrown out immediately, and you’d have a problem for knowingly and willfully violating the law.”

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