Justice Watchdog Eyes DEA’s Use Of Judgeless Subpoenas

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Federal investigators are scrutinizing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s use of warrantless subpoenas, according to a new report from the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General.

The DEA, which issues “thousands” of administrative subpoenas for records held by private businesses and individuals each year, went to court in 2013 after Oregon officials refused to hand over a pharmaceutical database, and a Dallas doctor’s office did the same with patient records.

Administrative subpoenas, a little-known but widely used federal investigative tool, allow government agencies to issue subpoenas for records to individuals and businesses without getting a judge’s prior approval. Judges typically deny subpoenas when a requester is unable to present evidence of a reasonable cause to justify the request.

“The DEA has interpreted its administrative subpoena authority broadly, and has relied on that authority to access large volumes of Americans’ private information,” said Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who has litigated administrative subpoena cases. “Independent oversight is sorely needed, both from federal judges and from internal Justice Department monitors.”

Federal agencies like the SEC, DEA and FERC have increased their use of administrative subpoenas in recent years, but Congress began authorizing them about a century ago.

“The OIG is examining the DEA’s use of administrative subpoenas to obtain broad collections of data or information,” the IG said. “The review will address the legal authority for the acquisition or use of these data collections; the existence and effectiveness of any policies and procedural safeguards established with respect to the collection, use and retention of the data; the creation, dissemination, and usefulness of any products generated from the data; and the use of ‘parallel construction’ or other techniques to protect the confidentiality of these programs.”

The review isn’t a criminal investigation. It will examine how closely DEA’s operations match its statutory administrative subpoena authority.

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