MEDICAL MISCONDUCT: NJ Approves Law to Search MD Offices
A New Jersey appellate court yesterday approved state investigators' right to search doctors' offices without warning or warrant if misconduct is suspected, the Bergen Record reports. The state attorney general's office lauded the decision, saying it "preserves a tool that is vital to the state's ability to regulate the medical profession and protect the public." The law permits unannounced searches if authorities have adequate basis for investigating a possible violation, if the "legal authority for the search [is] specified in writing" and if the search's time, place and scope are defined.
'Reduced Expectation of Privacy'
The case arose when a Bergen County doctor refused to permit investigations of her office in October, 1997, following a patient's complaint that the doctor dispensed a pain reliever several years beyond its expiration date. Once the Board of Medical Examiners issued a $1,000 fine against the doctor, she agreed to the search and was spared the fine. She, as well as the Medical Society of New Jersey, which represents 9,500 doctors, then sued the state, alleging the law violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The doctors lost. "The deeper concern is the precedent that says the board [of medical examiners] can craft its own standards," said Paul Armstrong, special counsel to the Medical Society, adding, "That's pretty much what disquiets organized medicine, the fact that the board is judge, jury, and prosecutor in these instances." Armstrong said the society also is concerned that unannounced searches violate the doctor-patient relationship by invading patient privacy. But Appellate Division Judges Edwin Stern, David Landau and Dennis Braithwaite countered that medicine, like other highly regulated industries, has a "reduced expectation of privacy." The Medical Society will decide next week whether to challenge the ruling. Meanwhile, the doctor is pursuing a separate claim that "the search was overly broad and violated her civil rights." That case is pending in Superior Court (Fields, 6/10).