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SLT Editorial: DEA Should Not Bypass Judges Or Search Warrants

dea-badgeBy Editorial Board
The Salt Lake Tribune

If the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it can’t do its job without bypassing a judge’s signature, it raises reasonable suspicions about law enforcement operating without proper oversight.

If the DEA adds that such a bypass is needed to stop Utahns from overdosing at high rates, it exposes just how shameless the war on drugs has become.

In a move that raises the specter of indiscriminate NSA phone monitoring, the federal government’s drug cops are pushing back against a Utah law that took effect this year that requires a judge to sign a search warrant for access to the state’s data base of prescriptions. Before that law, law enforcement could simply use “administrative subpoenas” that required no signoff from a judge.

It is precisely because of the abuse of such subpoenas that Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, sponsored the Utah law. The prescription data base was created in 1995 to track the blossoming problem of prescription drug abuse, particularly pain medications, and police could access it without a formal warrant from a judge.

In a notorious case, Cottonwood Heights police searched through every prescription issued to 480 Unified Fire Authority employees after pills were found missing from ambulances. If that egregious violation of privacy wasn’t enough, prosecutors eventually filed faulty charges against one assistant fire chief based on the search. He was cleared, and he’s now suing Cottonwood Heights.

DEA’s spokeswoman says the state’s new requirement “will significantly hamper our mission,” but she didn’t elaborate on how. All the Utah law asks is that the DEA get a judge to sign a warrant before the data base can be searched. That is something that could take as little as a couple of hours in a process that most of law enforcement uses daily. It also adds a measure of legitimacy to any investigation, meaning that the eventual charges have a better chance of sticking.

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