Appellant: Robert P. Whalen, New York Commissioner of Health
Appellees: Richard Roe, et al.
Appellant's Claim: That a New York computer system that stored information about prescription drug users was constitutional.
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: A. Seth Greenwald, Assistant Attorney General of New York
Chief Lawyer for Appellees: Michael Lesch and H. Miles Jaffee
Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, John Paul Stevens (writing for the Court), Potter Stewart, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: February 22, 1977
Decision: New York's computer system was reasonable and did not violate the right of privacy.
Significance: The government may collect and store vast amounts of private information on computers.
In 1970, New York State was concerned about the abuse of prescription drugs. Prescription drugs are drugs that doctors use to treat patients for illness, pain, and other medical conditions. Each doctor fills out a piece of paper called a prescription, which the patient then gives to a pharmacist. The pharmacist, in turn, sells the drug to the patient.
New York formed a commission to study the state's drug control laws. The commission learned that it was impossible to stop people from using stolen prescription drugs. There also was no way to stop unethical doctors and pharmacists from giving patients more drugs than they needed. Finally, there was no way to stop patients from going to more than one doctor to get many prescriptions for the same drug. All of these problems made it easy for people to abuse prescription drugs by using more than they needed.
Fighting drug abuse
Because drug abuse can injure health, ruin life, and even cause death, New York passed a new law to correct these problems. The new law created five drug schedules. Schedule I was for drugs, such as heroin, that had no legal medical uses. Drugs in schedules II through V had valid medical uses but tended to be abused.
Schedule II drugs were prescription drugs with the most serious abuse problems. Under the new law, prescriptions for schedule II drugs had to be written on a form that produced three copies. On the form, the doctor writing the prescription had to record her name, the name of the pharmacist, the drug and amount being prescribed, and the name, address, and age of the patient. The physician kept one copy of the form, the pharmacist kept the second copy, and the third copy went to the New York State Department of Health in Albany, New York.
The Department of Health sorted, coded, and recorded the forms on a log. The Department then recorded the data from the forms onto magnetic tapes for computer processing. Under the law, the Department kept the written forms in a locked vault for five years and then destroyed them. It designed the computer system so outside computers could not access the data. The law made it a crime for the Department of Health to disclose private information about patients to the public. By storing this information in computer records, New York hoped to prevent illegal drug use by monitoring prescriptions.
Fighting for the right of privacy
A few days before New York's law went into effect, patients who used schedule II drugs filed a lawsuit in federal district court to challenge the law. They argued that the law violated the right of privacy by storing private information about them in government computers.
The patients were worried that they would be called drug addicts if their private information was shared with the public. They said that fear would discourage people from getting schedule II drugs. In fact, the evidence showed that one adult and one child already had stopped getting schedule II drugs because of that fear. A doctor even said he completely stopped prescribing schedule II drugs because his patients were horrified by the new law.
The district court ruled in favor of the patients. It said liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right of privacy in America. Privacy, in turn, protects the relationship between doctors and patients. Because New York's law interfered with that relationship by discouraging patients from getting schedule II drugs from their doctors, it was unconstitutional. New York appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Privacy not threatened
With a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed and ruled in favor of New York. Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens considered whether New York's law was reasonable, and whether it violated the right of privacy.
Justice Stevens decided New York's law was reasonable. Drug abuse was a valid health concern. New York could discourage drug abuse by keeping track of what patients were using. The computer database would help New York investigate drug violations, which Justice Stevens said was a valid exercise of New York's police power to protect the health of its citizens.
As for the right of privacy, Justice Stevens said it has two parts: the desire to keep private information secret, and the freedom to make individual health decisions. Justice Stevens said New York's law did not violate either interest. The law required the Department of Health to keep all private information secret. Prescription forms were stored in a locked vault and then destroyed after five years. The computer system was secure from outside computers. In short, New York's law protected privacy.
The law also did not violate the freedom to make individual health decisions. Patients still were allowed to use schedule II drugs if necessary. By the time of the district court's decision, over 100,000 schedule II prescriptions had been filled under the law. That meant the law was not stopping people from getting schedule II drugs. Again, the fear of being branded as a drug addict was unreasonable because the law protected each patient's private information.
Justice Stevens said the Court realized the privacy risk caused by storing vast amounts of personal information on government computers. He said the result might be different if the law did not protect private information, or if someone shared such information with the public by accident or on purpose. New York's law, which did not have such problems, was constitutional.
Suggestions for further reading
Dolan, Edward F. Your Privacy: Protecting It in a Nosy World. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1995.
Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Your Right to Privacy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.
Mikula, Mark, and L. Mpho Mabunda, eds. Great American Court Cases. Vol. 1. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1999.
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