WHALEN V. ROE, 429 U. S. 589 (1977)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977)

Whalen v. Roe

No. 75-839

Argued October 13, 1976

Decided February 22, 1977

429 U.S. 589


Responding to a concern that drugs were being diverted into unlawful channels, the New York Legislature, in 1972, enacted a statutory scheme to correct defects in the previous law. The 1972 statute classifies potentially harmful drugs and provides that prescriptions for the category embracing the most dangerous legitimate drugs (Schedule II) be prepared on an official form. One copy of the form, which requires identification of the prescribing physician, dispensing pharmacy, drug and dosage, and the patient's name, address, and age, must be filed with the State Health Department, where pertinent data are recorded on tapes for computer processing. All forms are retained for a five-year period under a system to safeguard their security, and are thereafter destroyed. Public disclosure of the patient's identity is prohibited, and access to the files is confined to a limited number of health department and investigatory personnel. Appellees, including a group of patients regularly receiving Schedule II drugs and prescribing doctors, brought this action challenging the constitutionality of the Schedule II patient identification requirements. Holding that "the doctor-patient relationship is one of the zones of privacy accorded constitutional protection" and that the Act's patient identification provisions invaded that zone with "a needlessly broad sweep," since appellant had been unable to demonstrate the need for those requirements, a three-judge District Court enjoined the enforcement of the challenged provisions.


1. The patient identification requirement is a reasonable exercise of the State's broad police powers, and the District Court's finding that the necessity for the requirement had not been proved is not a sufficient reason for holding the statute unconstitutional. Pp. 429 U. S. 596-598.

2. Neither the immediate nor the threatened impact of the patient identification requirement on either the reputation or the independence of patients for whom Schedule II drugs are medically indicated suffices to constitute an invasion of any right or liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 429 U. S. 598-604.

(a) The possibility that a doctor or pharmacist may voluntarily

Page 429 U. S. 590

reveal information on a prescription form, which existed under prior law, is unrelated to the computerized data bank. Pp. 429 U. S. 600-601.

(b) There is no support in the record or in the experience of the two States that the New York program emulates for assuming that the statute's security provisions will be improperly administered. P. 429 U. S. 601.

(c) The remote possibility that judicial supervision of the evidentiary use of particular items of stored information will not provide adequate protection against unwarranted disclosure is not a sufficient reason for invalidating the entire patient identification program. Pp. 429 U. S. 601-602.

(d) Though it is argued that concern about disclosure may induce patients to refuse needed medication, the 1972 statute does not deprive the public of access to Schedule II drugs, as is clear from the fact that about 100,000 prescriptions for such drugs were filed each month before the District Court's injunction was entered. Pp. 429 U. S. 602-603.

3. Appellee doctors' contention that the 1972 statute impairs their right to practice medicine free from unwarranted state interference is without merit, whether it refers to the statute's impact on their own procedures, which is no different from the impact of the prior statute, or refers to the patients' concern about disclosure that the Court has rejected (see 2(d), supra). P. 429 U. S. 604.

403 F.Supp. 931, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 429 U. S. 606, and STEWART, J., post, p. 429 U. S. 607, filed concurring opinions.

Page 429 U. S. 591

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