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(Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that U.S. government attempts to gather information from an Oregon state database of prescription drug records violates constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
The American Civil Liberties Union hailed the decision, in a case originally brought by the state of Oregon, as the first time a federal judge has ruled that patients have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their prescription records.
The ACLU had joined the lawsuit on behalf of four patients and a physician challenging U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration efforts to gain access, without prior court approval, to the state's prescription database.
The Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program database was created by the state legislature in 2009 as a tool for pharmacists and physicians to track prescriptions of certain classes of drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Some seven million prescription records are uploaded to the system every year, according to court documents.
The state mandated privacy protections for the data, including a requirement that law enforcement could only obtain information from the network with a warrant.
But the DEA claimed federal law allowed the government to access the database using only an "administrative subpoena", which does not require a finding of probable cause for believing a crime has been committed or a judge's approval.
U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty in Portland ruled that the DEA's efforts to obtain Oregon's prescription records without a warrant violate Fourth Amendment safeguards against searches and seizures of items or places in which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
"It is more than reasonable for patients to believe that law enforcement agencies will not have unfettered access to their records," Haggerty wrote in the summary judgment opinion.
"The prescription information maintained by (Oregon) is intensely private as it connects a person's identity information with the prescription drugs they use," Haggerty wrote.
Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Eric M. Johnson