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

Annotate this Case
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Case

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

Primary Holding

Requiring health care providers to store the private information of patients who received prescriptions for drugs that can be illegally abused is permissible despite the privacy rights of the patients.


Physicians in New York were legally obligated to provide reports to the state that identified patients for whom they prescribed drugs that had a risk of abuse. The names and addresses of the patients were kept in a centralized computer file by the state, although thorough security measures were taken to protect the reports and computer files. The state provided that disclosing the information in the reports and files to the public was a crime. However, patients still brought a claim against the state on the grounds that the existence of the files interfered with their constitutional right to privacy. The lower courts agreed.



  • John Paul Stevens (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

The state has a strong interest in assuring that prescription drugs are not being used illegally, and it has wide discretion in pursuing that objective. The reporting system is reasonable because it does not greatly infringe on either type of individual privacy interest, which are the right to avoid disclosure of personal matters and the right to make certain important decisions independently. The security measures that the state has taken make any breach of privacy unlikely, and the system should not be dismantled based on the highly unlikely prospect that some of this information might be released in a judicial proceeding.

The disclosures that the doctors must make to the state are no more expansive than the disclosures that they make to insurance companies and health care providers in other contexts. They are necessary in many situations for the health care system to function properly, even if some of the information may be embarrassing to the patient. State health officials should have access to this information because they are responsible for upholding the health of state's citizens, and the patients are not under an immediate threat to their reputation or decision-making autonomy.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)


  • Potter Stewart (Author)

Case Commentary

It is important to note that this decision was based on finding that the possibility of accidental disclosure was an insufficient risk to hold that the invasion of privacy was unconstitutional. Some intrusions on privacy are justifiable when the state has a significant interest, as the Court found here. It did not deny that the privacy interest was implicated, but it felt content that the prescribed penalty for disclosure would act as a sufficient deterrent and compensatory means.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.