Vermont police are looking at the state Health Department's prescription drug database in a way they promised they never would -- as a law enforcement tool that they should be able to snoop through at will.

If police want access to individuals’ drug records, we say, “Fine, get a warrant.” The Fourth Amendment – the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure – is not a mere inconvenience. Its warrant requirement is there for a reason.

The state’s computerized drug database was created in 2006 after extensive discussion in the Legislature over what the data could be used for. The ACLU and other privacy advocates insisted police not have carte blanche access. Eventually, then-Public Safety Commissioner Kerry Sleeper – himself a former drug investigator – agreed with state Health Department officials that the database would be for health, not law enforcement, purposes.

Now, five years later, law enforcement is going back on the assurance it gave. Police have told the press the state is being overwhelmed by prescription drug abuse. We acknowledge that some Vermonters misuse prescription painkillers. But snipping a corner off the Constitution to make police investigations easier sacrifices all Vermonters’ medical privacy in the name of punishing the few who exploit the trust of doctors and pharmacists.

This “data creep” raises issues the ACLU has seen in other areas where extensive databases of personal information are built. While such databases may offer benefits, they also pose significant privacy risks if the information starts to be diverted for purposes other than those laid out when the systems were established.

The state is embarking on creating a comprehensive e-medical records system that will hold all of our personal health information. We’re being told the information will be private and secure. Why would anyone trust that assurance if police get their way to browse the prescription drug database without any supervision or accountability?