Over the last several years, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have focused on shutting down what they call “pill mills” and arresting and prosecuting many people involved with these alleged pill mills from office staff to doctors to owners. A “pill mill” is a pain management clinic that sees a lot of patients and dispenses pain killers such as Oxycodone and Oxycontin in large quantities without a proper examination and doctor patient relationship. We have seen many of these cases in Florida and Georgia and defended doctors and clinic owners in these cases.
The police will hear about these alleged pill mills and start their investigation in a number of ways. They will conduct surveillance outside the clinic and see how many people are going in and out of the clinic in a given day, and how quickly. They will send in undercover officers pretending to be patients looking for quick access to pain killers and document what kind of encounters they have with the doctors, if any. They will interview patients to see what kind of evaluation and discussion they had with the doctors. Ultimately, if the police believe they have sufficient evidence that the clinic is a pill mill, they will get a search warrant and seize all of the medical records at the facility.
This presents a problem because a person’s medical records are confidential, and it is unclear that the police can obtain a person’s medical records without proof that this person was involved in illegal activity. Even if a clinic is operating as a pill mill, that does not mean all of the patients are involved. If the police come in and take all of the patients’ records, it is likely that they are taking medical records of patients who have nothing to do with the investigation. That violates medical privacy laws.
In a recent pill mill case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police conducted their investigation as indicated above, obtained a search warrant and took all of the medical records in the pain clinic. The doctors and several others were arrested on serious drug charges. The criminal defense lawyers filed a motion to suppress the medical records arguing that the police overstepped their authority by taking all of the medical records rather than just the ones that were related to the drug case.
The court held that the police can obtain medical records of a patient who is not involved in criminal activity if those records are relevant to the criminal investigation. However, the state should not have unconditional access to all of these medical records for any purpose. The Court indicated that the search warrant authorizing the seizure of medical records should provide that the medical records be sealed once they are seized. After the seizure, the medical records should remain sealed until the parties had a hearing during which the court would determine which records can be seen and used by the state and which records remain private. The defense and the state would be entitled to present evidence, expert testimony and legal argument to suggest whether the medical records, or some of them, should be remain private or released to the state.