Appeals court considers case of Unified Firefighters accused of taking painkillers

Posted at 10:54 AM, Sep 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-20 14:16:20-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal appeals court is considering whether authorities violated the constitutional rights of two Unified Firefighters whose prescription drug history was accessed during a criminal investigation.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday in Marlon Jones and Ryan Pyle’s lawsuit against Cottonwood Heights, who accuse authorities there of violating their Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure.

In 2013, authorities were investigating the disappearance of prescription painkillers from ambulances. As part of the investigation, law enforcement accessed 480 Unified Fire Authority employees’ prescription drug histories without a warrant. Pyle and Jones were charged with wrongfully acquiring prescription drugs, although the criminal cases were ultimately dismissed.

A file photo of Unified Fire Authority Assistant Chief Marlon Jones. (FOX 13 News)

A file photo of Unified Fire Authority Assistant Chief Marlon Jones. (FOX 13 News)

The two sued, and now the case has wound its way to the Denver-based appeals court. The advocacy group Public Citizen, which represents the two firefighters, argues that law enforcement should have obtained a warrant.

“We’re arguing that any reasonable officer should have known you can’t rummage around an electronic medicine cabinet without a warrant,” their attorney, Scott Michelman, told FOX 13 in an interview Tuesday.

The case could have significant impact on states’ prescription drug databases and whether police should be forced to get a warrant. After the Unified Fire Authority incident, Utah lawmakers passed a law requiring a warrant. Since then, as FOX 13 first reported, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been locked in litigation with the state of Utah over access to the database for other investigations.

Michelman said the Utah State Legislature quickly took action on its database, but other states do not require a warrant and the 10th Circuit’s decision could impact them.

“We think the strong and swift legislative response from the Utah legislature demonstrates what a vast intrusion of privacy this was,” he said.

The 10th Circuit Court took the case under advisement with a ruling expected in months.