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2.16: Chapter 17 The Warrant Requirement - Exceptions

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    In this chapter, we continue our discussion of searches of public school students and public employees. First, we review when the Court has allowed for public employers and public schools to require that employees and students submit to drug tests. Then, we consider the question of when public hospitals may conduct drug tests of patients without consent.

    Drug Testing of Public Employees

    The next case concerns a government regulation providing for the drug testing of certain railroad employees after certain accidents.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Samuel K. Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association

    Decided March 21, 1989 – 489 U.S. 602

    Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to “prescribe, as necessary, appropriate rules, regulations, orders, and standards for all areas of railroad safety.” Finding that alcohol and drug abuse by railroad employees poses a serious threat to safety, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has promulgated regulations that mandate blood and urine tests of employees who are involved in certain train accidents. The FRA also has adopted regulations that do not require, but do authorize, railroads to administer breath and urine tests to employees who violate certain safety rules. The question presented by this case is whether these regulations violate the Fourth Amendment.


    The regulations prohibit covered employees from using or possessing alcohol or any controlled substance. The regulations further prohibit those employees from reporting for covered service while under the influence of, or impaired by, alcohol, while having a blood alcohol concentration of .04 or more, or while under the influence of, or impaired by, any controlled substance. To the extent pertinent here, two subparts of the regulations relate to testing. Subpart C, which is entitled “Post-Accident Toxicological Testing,” is mandatory. It provides that railroads “shall take all practicable steps to assure that all covered employees of the railroad directly involved … provide blood and urine samples for toxicological testing by FRA” upon the occurrence of certain specified events. Toxicological testing is required following a “major train accident,” which is defined as any train accident that involves (i) a fatality, (ii) the release of hazardous material accompanied by an evacuation or a reportable injury, or (iii) damage to railroad property of $500,000 or more. The railroad has the further duty of collecting blood and urine samples for testing after an “impact accident,” which is defined as a collision that results in a reportable injury, or in damage to railroad property of $50,000 or more. Finally, the railroad is also obligated to test after “[a]ny train incident that involves a fatality to any on-duty railroad employee.”

    After occurrence of an event which activates its duty to test, the railroad must transport all crew members and other covered employees directly involved in the accident or incident to an independent medical facility, where both blood and urine samples must be obtained from each employee. After the samples have been collected, the railroad is required to ship them by prepaid air freight to the FRA laboratory for analysis. The FRA proposes to place primary reliance on analysis of blood samples, as blood is “the only available body fluid … that can provide a clear indication not only of the presence of alcohol and drugs but also their current impairment effects.” Urine samples are also necessary, however, because drug traces remain in the urine longer than in blood, and in some cases it will not be possible to transport employees to a medical facility before the time it takes for certain drugs to be eliminated from the bloodstream. In those instances, a “positive urine test, taken with specific information on the pattern of elimination for the particular drug and other information on the behavior of the employee and the circumstances of the accident, may be crucial to the determination of” the cause of an accident.

    The regulations require that the FRA notify employees of the results of the tests and afford them an opportunity to respond in writing before preparation of any final investigative report. Employees who refuse to provide required blood or urine samples may not perform covered service for nine months, but they are entitled to a hearing concerning their refusal to take the test.

    Subpart D of the regulations, which is entitled “Authorization to Test for Cause,” is permissive. It authorizes railroads to require covered employees to submit to breath or urine tests in certain circumstances not addressed by Subpart C. Breath or urine tests, or both, may be ordered (1) after a reportable accident or incident, where a supervisor has a “reasonable suspicion” that an employee’s acts or omissions contributed to the occurrence or severity of the accident or incident; or (2) in the event of certain specific rule violations, including noncompliance with a signal and excessive speeding. A railroad also may require breath tests where a supervisor has a “reasonable suspicion” that an employee is under the influence of alcohol, based upon specific, personal observations concerning the appearance, behavior, speech, or body odors of the employee. Where impairment is suspected, a railroad, in addition, may require urine tests, but only if two supervisors make the appropriate determination and where the supervisors suspect impairment due to a substance other than alcohol, at least one of those supervisors must have received specialized training in detecting the signs of drug intoxication.

    Subpart D further provides that whenever the results of either breath or urine tests are intended for use in a disciplinary proceeding, the employee must be given the opportunity to provide a blood sample for analysis at an independent medical facility. If an employee declines to give a blood sample, the railroad may presume impairment, absent persuasive evidence to the contrary, from a positive showing of controlled substance residues in the urine. The railroad must, however, provide detailed notice of this presumption to its employees, and advise them of their right to provide a contemporaneous blood sample. As in the case of samples procured under Subpart C, the regulations set forth procedures for the collection of samples, and require that samples “be analyzed by a method that is reliable within known tolerances.”

    Respondents brought the instant suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, seeking to enjoin the FRA’s regulations on various statutory and constitutional grounds. In a ruling from the bench, the District Court granted summary judgment in petitioners’ favor. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. We granted the federal parties’ petition for a writ of certiorari to consider whether the regulations invalidated by the Court of Appeals violate the Fourth Amendment. We now reverse.


    [The Court first determined that the drug testing regulation could be challenged under the Fourth Amendment even though the tests at issue were conducted by private railroads. The Court also found that the tests amounted to “searches.”]


    [T]he Fourth Amendment does not proscribe all searches and seizures, but only those that are unreasonable. What is reasonable, of course, “depends on all of the circumstances surrounding the search or seizure and the nature of the search or seizure itself.” Thus, the permissibility of a particular practice “is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.”

    We have recognized exceptions to [the warrant requirement] “when ‘special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable.’” When faced with such special needs, we have not hesitated to balance the governmental and privacy interests to assess the practicality of the warrant and probable-cause requirements in the particular context.

    The Government’s interest in regulating the conduct of railroad employees to ensure safety, like its supervision of probationers or regulated industries, or its operation of a government office, school, or prison, “likewise presents ‘special needs’ beyond normal law enforcement that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable-cause requirements.” It is undisputed that [] covered employees are engaged in safety-sensitive tasks. The FRA so found, and respondents conceded the point at oral argument.

    The FRA has prescribed toxicological tests, not to assist in the prosecution of employees, but rather “to prevent accidents and casualties in railroad operations that result from impairment of employees by alcohol or drugs.” This governmental interest in ensuring the safety of the traveling public and of the employees themselves plainly justifies prohibiting covered employees from using alcohol or drugs on duty, or while subject to being called for duty. This interest also “require[s] and justif[ies] the exercise of supervision to assure that the restrictions are in fact observed.” The question that remains, then, is whether the Government’s need to monitor compliance with these restrictions justifies the privacy intrusions at issue absent a warrant or individualized suspicion.


    Both the circumstances justifying toxicological testing and the permissible limits of such intrusions are defined narrowly and specifically in the regulations that authorize them, and doubtless are well known to covered employees. Indeed, in light of the standardized nature of the tests and the minimal discretion vested in those charged with administering the program, there are virtually no facts for a neutral magistrate to evaluate.

    We have recognized, moreover, that the government’s interest in dispensing with the warrant requirement is at its strongest when, as here, “the burden of obtaining a warrant is likely to frustrate the governmental purpose behind the search.” As the FRA recognized, alcohol and other drugs are eliminated from the bloodstream at a constant rate, and blood and breath samples taken to measure whether these substances were in the bloodstream when a triggering event occurred must be obtained as soon as possible.

    The Government’s need to rely on private railroads to set the testing process in motion also indicates that insistence on a warrant requirement would impede the achievement of the Government’s objective. Railroad supervisors are not in the business of investigating violations of the criminal laws or enforcing administrative codes, and otherwise have little occasion to become familiar with the intricacies of this Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. “Imposing unwieldy warrant procedures … upon supervisors, who would otherwise have no reason to be familiar with such procedures, is simply unreasonable.”

    In sum, imposing a warrant requirement in the present context would add little to the assurances of certainty and regularity already afforded by the regulations, while significantly hindering, and in many cases frustrating, the objectives of the Government’s testing program. We do not believe that a warrant is essential to render the intrusions here at issue reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

    Our cases indicate that even a search that may be performed without a warrant must be based, as a general matter, on probable cause to believe that the person to be searched has violated the law. When the balance of interests precludes insistence on a showing of probable cause, we have usually required “some quantum of individualized suspicion” before concluding that a search is reasonable. We made it clear, however, that a showing of individualized suspicion is not a constitutional floor, below which a search must be presumed unreasonable. In limited circumstances, where the privacy interests implicated by the search are minimal, and where an important governmental interest furthered by the intrusion would be placed in jeopardy by a requirement of individualized suspicion, a search may be reasonable despite the absence of such suspicion. We believe this is true of the intrusions in question here.

    By and large, intrusions on privacy under the FRA regulations are limited. The breath tests authorized by Subpart D of the regulations are even less intrusive than the blood tests prescribed by Subpart C. Unlike blood tests, breath tests do not require piercing the skin and may be conducted safely outside a hospital environment and with a minimum of inconvenience or embarrassment. Like the blood-testing procedures mandated by Subpart C, which can be used only to ascertain the presence of alcohol or controlled substances in the bloodstream, breath tests reveal no other facts in which the employee has a substantial privacy interest. In all the circumstances, we cannot conclude that the administration of a breath test implicates significant privacy concerns.

    A more difficult question is presented by urine tests. Like breath tests, urine tests are not invasive of the body and, under the regulations, may not be used as an occasion for inquiring into private facts unrelated to alcohol or drug use. We recognize, however, that the procedures for collecting the necessary samples, which require employees to perform an excretory function traditionally shielded by great privacy, raise concerns not implicated by blood or breath tests. While we would not characterize these additional privacy concerns as minimal in most contexts, we note that the regulations endeavor to reduce the intrusiveness of the collection process. The regulations do not require that samples be furnished under the direct observation of a monitor, despite the desirability of such a procedure to ensure the integrity of the sample. The sample is also collected in a medical environment, by personnel unrelated to the railroad employer, and is thus not unlike similar procedures encountered often in the context of a regular physical examination.

    More importantly, the expectations of privacy of covered employees are diminished by reason of their participation in an industry that is regulated pervasively to ensure safety, a goal dependent, in substantial part, on the health and fitness of covered employees. We do not suggest, of course, that the interest in bodily security enjoyed by those employed in a regulated industry must always be considered minimal. Here, however, the covered employees have long been a principal focus of regulatory concern. As the dissenting judge below noted: “The reason is obvious. An idle locomotive, sitting in the roundhouse, is harmless. It becomes lethal when operated negligently by persons who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs.” We conclude, therefore, that the testing procedures contemplated by Subparts C and D pose only limited threats to the justifiable expectations of privacy of covered employees.

    By contrast, the Government interest in testing without a showing of individualized suspicion is compelling. Employees subject to the tests discharge duties fraught with such risks of injury to others that even a momentary lapse of attention can have disastrous consequences. Much like persons who have routine access to dangerous nuclear power facilities, employees who are subject to testing under the FRA regulations can cause great human loss before any signs of impairment become noticeable to supervisors or others. An impaired employee, the FRA found, will seldom display any outward “signs detectable by the lay person or, in many cases, even the physician.” Indeed, while respondents posit that impaired employees might be detected without alcohol or drug testing, the premise of respondents’ lawsuit is that even the occurrence of a major calamity will not give rise to a suspicion of impairment with respect to any particular employee.

    While no procedure can identify all impaired employees with ease and perfect accuracy, the FRA regulations supply an effective means of deterring employees engaged in safety-sensitive tasks from using controlled substances or alcohol in the first place. By ensuring that employees in safety-sensitive positions know they will be tested upon the occurrence of a triggering event, the timing of which no employee can predict with certainty, the regulations significantly increase the deterrent effect of the administrative penalties associated with the prohibited conduct, concomitantly increasing the likelihood that employees will forgo using drugs or alcohol while subject to being called for duty.

    The testing procedures contemplated by Subpart C also help railroads obtain invaluable information about the causes of major accidents and to take appropriate measures to safeguard the general public. Positive test results would point toward drug or alcohol impairment on the part of members of the crew as a possible cause of an accident, and may help to establish whether a particular accident, otherwise not drug related, was made worse by the inability of impaired employees to respond appropriately. Negative test results would likewise furnish invaluable clues, for eliminating drug impairment as a potential cause or contributing factor would help establish the significance of equipment failure, inadequate training, or other potential causes, and suggest a more thorough examination of these alternatives. Tests performed following the rule violations specified in Subpart D likewise can provide valuable information respecting the causes of those transgressions, which the FRA found to involve “the potential for a serious train accident or grave personal injury, or both.”

    A requirement of particularized suspicion of drug or alcohol use would seriously impede an employer’s ability to obtain this information, despite its obvious importance. Experience confirms the FRA’s judgment that the scene of a serious rail accident is chaotic. Investigators who arrive at the scene shortly after a major accident has occurred may find it difficult to determine which members of a train crew contributed to its occurrence. Obtaining evidence that might give rise to the suspicion that a particular employee is impaired, a difficult endeavor in the best of circumstances, is most impracticable in the aftermath of a serious accident. While events following the rule violations that activate the testing authority of Subpart D may be less chaotic, objective indicia of impairment are absent in these instances as well. Indeed, any attempt to gather evidence relating to the possible impairment of particular employees likely would result in the loss or deterioration of the evidence furnished by the tests. It would be unrealistic, and inimical to the Government’s goal of ensuring safety in rail transportation, to require a showing of individualized suspicion in these circumstances.

    We conclude that the compelling Government interests served by the FRA’s regulations would be significantly hindered if railroads were required to point to specific facts giving rise to a reasonable suspicion of impairment before testing a given employee. In view of our conclusion that, on the present record, the toxicological testing contemplated by the regulations is not an undue infringement on the justifiable expectations of privacy of covered employees, the Government’s compelling interests outweigh privacy concerns.


    The possession of unlawful drugs is a criminal offense that the Government may punish, but it is a separate and far more dangerous wrong to perform certain sensitive tasks while under the influence of those substances. Performing those tasks while impaired by alcohol is, of course, equally dangerous, though consumption of alcohol is legal in most other contexts. The Government may take all necessary and reasonable regulatory steps to prevent or deter that hazardous conduct, and since the gravamen of the evil is performing certain functions while concealing the substance in the body, it may be necessary, as in the case before us, to examine the body or its fluids to accomplish the regulatory purpose. The necessity to perform that regulatory function with respect to railroad employees engaged in safety-sensitive tasks, and the reasonableness of the system for doing so, have been established in this case.

    In light of the limited discretion exercised by the railroad employers under the regulations, the surpassing safety interests served by toxicological tests in this context, and the diminished expectation of privacy that attaches to information pertaining to the fitness of covered employees, we believe that it is reasonable to conduct such tests in the absence of a warrant or reasonable suspicion that any particular employee may be impaired. We hold that the alcohol and drug tests contemplated by Subparts C and D of the FRA’s regulations are reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly reversed.

    Justice MARSHALL, with whom Justice BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

    The issue in this case is not whether declaring a war on illegal drugs is good public policy. The importance of ridding our society of such drugs is, by now, apparent to all. Rather, the issue here is whether the Government’s deployment in that war of a particularly Draconian weapon—the compulsory collection and chemical testing of railroad workers’ blood and urine—comports with the Fourth Amendment. Precisely because the need for action against the drug scourge is manifest, the need for vigilance against unconstitutional excess is great. History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. [W]hen we allow fundamental freedoms to be sacrificed in the name of real or perceived exigency, we invariably come to regret it.

    In permitting the Government to force entire railroad crews to submit to invasive blood and urine tests, even when it lacks any evidence of drug or alcohol use or other wrongdoing, the majority today joins those shortsighted courts which have allowed basic constitutional rights to fall prey to momentary emergencies. The majority purports to limit its decision to postaccident testing of workers in “safety-sensitive” jobs. But the damage done to the Fourth Amendment is not so easily cabined. The majority’s acceptance of dragnet blood and urine testing ensures that the first, and worst, casualty of the war on drugs will be the precious liberties of our citizens. I therefore dissent.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    On the same day as Skinner, the Court decided National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989), another case about drug testing public employees. A U.S. Customs Service program required drug testing of employees who sought promotion to jobs involving seizing illegal drugs or which required employees to carry firearms or handle classified materials. Again, the Court found the collection of urine samples to be a “search.” Again, the Court upheld the policy, holding that it was “reasonable” for the government to mandate the tests because of its “compelling interest in ensuring that front-line interdiction personnel are physically fit, and have unimpeachable integrity and judgment.” Comparing the practice to hypothetical searches of workers at “the United States Mint … when they leave the workplace every day,” the Court concluded that the “operational realities” of the Customs Service justified the testing.

    By contrast, in Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997), the Court struck down a Georgia law requiring that candidates for certain state offices submit to drug tests. The state stressed “the incompatibility of unlawful drug use with holding high state office” and argued that “the use of illegal drugs draws into question an official’s judgment and integrity; jeopardizes the discharge of public functions, including antidrug law enforcement efforts; and undermines public confidence and trust in elected officials.” The Court was not persuaded, concluding, “[n]othing in the record hints that the hazards respondents broadly describe are real and not simply hypothetical for Georgia’s polity.” The Court noted that political candidates “are subject to relentless scrutiny—by their peers, the public, and the press.” The Justices stated that the suspicionless searches needed to track lower-profile employees—like those approved in Skinner and Von Raab—were not necessary for voters to vet candidates for election.

    Drug Testing of Public School Students

    The Court has repeatedly applied the reasoning of Skinner and Von Raab to public school policies that mandate the drug testing of certain students.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Vernonia School District 47J v. Wayne Acton

    Decided June 26, 1995 – 515 U.S. 646

    Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The Student Athlete Drug Policy adopted by School District 47J in the town of Vernonia, Oregon, authorizes random urinalysis drug testing of students who participate in the District’s school athletics programs. We granted certiorari to decide whether this violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.


    Petitioner Vernonia School District 47J (District) operates one high school and three grade schools in the logging community of Vernonia, Oregon. As elsewhere in small-town America, school sports play a prominent role in the town’s life, and student athletes are admired in their schools and in the community.

    Drugs had not been a major problem in Vernonia schools. In the mid-to-late 1980’s, however, teachers and administrators observed a sharp increase in drug use. Students began to speak out about their attraction to the drug culture, and to boast that there was nothing the school could do about it. Along with more drugs came more disciplinary problems. Between 1988 and 1989 the number of disciplinary referrals in Vernonia schools rose to more than twice the number reported in the early 1980’s, and several students were suspended. Students became increasingly rude during class; outbursts of profane language became common.

    Not only were student athletes included among the drug users but, as the District Court found, athletes were the leaders of the drug culture. This caused the District’s administrators particular concern, since drug use increases the risk of sports-related injury. The high school football and wrestling coach witnessed a severe sternum injury suffered by a wrestler, and various omissions of safety procedures and misexecutions by football players, all attributable in his belief to the effects of drug use.

    Initially, the District responded to the drug problem by offering special classes, speakers, and presentations designed to deter drug use. It even brought in a specially trained dog to detect drugs, but the drug problem persisted. At that point, District officials began considering a drug-testing program. They held a parent “input night” to discuss the proposed Student Athlete Drug Policy (Policy), and the parents in attendance gave their unanimous approval. The school board approved the Policy for implementation in the fall of 1989. Its expressed purpose is to prevent student athletes from using drugs, to protect their health and safety, and to provide drug users with assistance programs.


    The Policy applies to all students participating in interscholastic athletics. Students wishing to play sports must sign a form consenting to the testing and must obtain the written consent of their parents. Athletes are tested at the beginning of the season for their sport. In addition, once each week of the season the names of the athletes are placed in a “pool” from which a student, with the supervision of two adults, blindly draws the names of 10% of the athletes for random testing. Those selected are notified and tested that same day, if possible.

    The student to be tested completes a specimen control form which bears an assigned number. Prescription medications that the student is taking must be identified by providing a copy of the prescription or a doctor’s authorization. The student then enters an empty locker room accompanied by an adult monitor of the same sex. Each boy selected produces a sample at a urinal, remaining fully clothed with his back to the monitor, who stands approximately 12 to 15 feet behind the student. Monitors may (though do not always) watch the student while he produces the sample, and they listen for normal sounds of urination. Girls produce samples in an enclosed bathroom stall, so that they can be heard but not observed. After the sample is produced, it is given to the monitor, who checks it for temperature and tampering and then transfers it to a vial.

    The samples are sent to an independent laboratory, which routinely tests them for amphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana. Other drugs, such as LSD, may be screened at the request of the District, but the identity of a particular student does not determine which drugs will be tested. The laboratory’s procedures are 99.94% accurate. The District follows strict procedures regarding the chain of custody and access to test results. The laboratory does not know the identity of the students whose samples it tests. It is authorized to mail written test reports only to the superintendent and to provide test results to District personnel by telephone only after the requesting official recites a code confirming his authority. Only the superintendent, principals, vice-principals, and athletic directors have access to test results, and the results are not kept for more than one year.

    If a sample tests positive, a second test is administered as soon as possible to confirm the result. If the second test is negative, no further action is taken. If the second test is positive, the athlete’s parents are notified, and the school principal convenes a meeting with the student and his parents, at which the student is given the option of (1) participating for six weeks in an assistance program that includes weekly urinalysis, or (2) suffering suspension from athletics for the remainder of the current season and the next athletic season. The student is then retested prior to the start of the next athletic season for which he or she is eligible. The Policy states that a second offense results in automatic imposition of option (2); a third offense in suspension for the remainder of the current season and the next two athletic seasons.


    In the fall of 1991, respondent James Acton, then a seventh grader, signed up to play football at one of the District’s grade schools. He was denied participation, however, because he and his parents refused to sign the testing consent forms. The Actons filed suit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from enforcement of the Policy on the grounds that it violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. After a bench trial, the District Court entered an order denying the claims on the merits and dismissing the action. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the Policy violated both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. We granted certiorari.


    As the text of the Fourth Amendment indicates, the ultimate measure of the constitutionality of a governmental search is “reasonableness.” [W]hether a particular search meets the reasonableness standard “‘is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.’” Where a search is undertaken by law enforcement officials to discover evidence of criminal wrongdoing, this Court has said that reasonableness generally requires the obtaining of a judicial warrant [supported by probable cause]. A search unsupported by probable cause can be constitutional, we have said, “when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable.”


    The first factor to be considered is the nature of the privacy interest upon which the search here at issue intrudes. Central, in our view, to the present case is the fact that the subjects of the Policy are (1) children, who (2) have been committed to the temporary custody of the State as schoolmaster.

    Fourth Amendment rights, no less than First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, are different in public schools than elsewhere; the “reasonableness” inquiry cannot disregard the schools’ custodial and tutelary responsibility for children. For their own good and that of their classmates, public school children are routinely required to submit to various physical examinations, and to be vaccinated against various diseases.

    Legitimate privacy expectations are even less with regard to student athletes. School sports are not for the bashful. They require “suiting up” before each practice or event, and showering and changing afterwards. Public school locker rooms, the usual sites for these activities, are not notable for the privacy they afford. The locker rooms in Vernonia are typical: No individual dressing rooms are provided; shower heads are lined up along a wall, unseparated by any sort of partition or curtain; not even all the toilet stalls have doors. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has noted, there is “an element of ‘communal undress’ inherent in athletic participation.”

    There is an additional respect in which school athletes have a reduced expectation of privacy. By choosing to “go out for the team,” they voluntarily subject themselves to a degree of regulation even higher than that imposed on students generally. In Vernonia’s public schools, they must submit to a preseason physical exam (James testified that his included the giving of a urine sample), they must acquire adequate insurance coverage or sign an insurance waiver, maintain a minimum grade point average, and comply with any “rules of conduct, dress, training hours and related matters as may be established for each sport by the head coach and athletic director with the principal’s approval.” Somewhat like adults who choose to participate in a “closely regulated industry,” students who voluntarily participate in school athletics have reason to expect intrusions upon normal rights and privileges, including privacy.


    Having considered the scope of the legitimate expectation of privacy at issue here, we turn next to the character of the intrusion that is complained of. We recognized in Skinner that collecting the samples for urinalysis intrudes upon “an excretory function traditionally shielded by great privacy.” We noted, however, that the degree of intrusion depends upon the manner in which production of the urine sample is monitored. Under the District’s Policy, male students produce samples at a urinal along a wall. They remain fully clothed and are only observed from behind, if at all. Female students produce samples in an enclosed stall, with a female monitor standing outside listening only for sounds of tampering. These conditions are nearly identical to those typically encountered in public restrooms, which men, women, and especially schoolchildren use daily. Under such conditions, the privacy interests compromised by the process of obtaining the urine sample are in our view negligible.

    The other privacy-invasive aspect of urinalysis is, of course, the information it discloses concerning the state of the subject’s body, and the materials he has ingested. In this regard it is significant that the tests at issue here look only for drugs, and not for whether the student is, for example, epileptic, pregnant, or diabetic. Moreover, the drugs for which the samples are screened are standard, and do not vary according to the identity of the student. And finally, the results of the tests are disclosed only to a limited class of school personnel who have a need to know; and they are not turned over to law enforcement authorities or used for any internal disciplinary function.


    Finally, we turn to consider the nature and immediacy of the governmental concern at issue here, and the efficacy of this means for meeting it. [T]he District Court held that because the District’s program also called for drug testing in the absence of individualized suspicion, the District “must demonstrate a ‘compelling need’ for the program.” The Court of Appeals appears to have agreed with this view. It is a mistake, however, to think that the phrase “compelling state interest,” in the Fourth Amendment context, describes a fixed, minimum quantum of governmental concern, so that one can dispose of a case by answering in isolation the question: Is there a compelling state interest here? Rather, the phrase describes an interest that appears important enough to justify the particular search at hand, in light of other factors that show the search to be relatively intrusive upon a genuine expectation of privacy. Whether that relatively high degree of government concern is necessary in this case or not, we think it is met.

    That the nature of the concern is important—indeed, perhaps compelling—can hardly be doubted. School years are the time when the physical, psychological, and addictive effects of drugs are most severe. “Maturing nervous systems are more critically impaired by intoxicants than mature ones are; childhood losses in learning are lifelong and profound”; “children grow chemically dependent more quickly than adults, and their record of recovery is depressingly poor.” And of course the effects of a drug-infested school are visited not just upon the users, but upon the entire student body and faculty, as the educational process is disrupted. In the present case, moreover, the necessity for the State to act is magnified by the fact that this evil is being visited not just upon individuals at large, but upon children for whom it has undertaken a special responsibility of care and direction. Finally, it must not be lost sight of that this program is directed more narrowly to drug use by school athletes, where the risk of immediate physical harm to the drug user or those with whom he is playing his sport is particularly high. Apart from psychological effects, which include impairment of judgment, slow reaction time, and a lessening of the perception of pain, the particular drugs screened by the District’s Policy have been demonstrated to pose substantial physical risks to athletes. Amphetamines produce an “artificially induced heart rate increase, [p]eripheral vasoconstriction, [b]lood pressure increase, and [m]asking of the normal fatigue response,” making them a “very dangerous drug when used during exercise of any type.” Marijuana causes “[i]rregular blood pressure responses during changes in body position,” “[r]eduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood,” and “[i]nhibition of the normal sweating responses resulting in increased body temperature.” Cocaine produces “[v]asoconstriction[,] [e]levated blood pressure,” and “[p]ossible coronary artery spasms and myocardial infarction.”

    As for the immediacy of the District’s concerns: We are not inclined to question—indeed, we could not possibly find clearly erroneous—the District Court’s conclusion that “a large segment of the student body, particularly those involved in interscholastic athletics, was in a state of rebellion,” that “[d]isciplinary actions had reached ‘epidemic proportions,’” and that “the rebellion was being fueled by alcohol and drug abuse as well as by the student’s misperceptions about the drug culture.” That is an immediate crisis of greater proportions than existed in Skinner, where we upheld the Government’s drug-testing program based on findings of drug use by railroad employees nationwide, without proof that a problem existed on the particular railroads whose employees were subject to the test. And of much greater proportions than existed in Von Raab, where there was no documented history of drug use by any customs officials.

    As to the efficacy of this means for addressing the problem: It seems to us self-evident that a drug problem largely fueled by the “role model” effect of athletes’ drug use, and of particular danger to athletes, is effectively addressed by making sure that athletes do not use drugs. Respondents argue that a “less intrusive means to the same end” was available, namely, “drug testing on suspicion of drug use.” We have repeatedly refused to declare that only the “least intrusive” search practicable can be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Respondents’ alternative entails substantial difficulties—if it is indeed practicable at all. It may be impracticable, for one thing, simply because the parents who are willing to accept random drug testing for athletes are not willing to accept accusatory drug testing for all students, which transforms the process into a badge of shame. Respondents’ proposal brings the risk that teachers will impose testing arbitrarily upon troublesome but not drug-likely students. It generates the expense of defending lawsuits that charge such arbitrary imposition, or that simply demand greater process before accusatory drug testing is imposed. And not least of all, it adds to the ever-expanding diversionary duties of schoolteachers the new function of spotting and bringing to account drug abuse, a task for which they are ill prepared, and which is not readily compatible with their vocation. In many respects, we think, testing based on “suspicion” of drug use would not be better, but worse.


    Taking into account all the factors we have considered above—the decreased expectation of privacy, the relative unobtrusiveness of the search, and the severity of the need met by the search—we conclude Vernonia’s Policy is reasonable and hence constitutional.

    We caution against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing will readily pass constitutional muster in other contexts. The most significant element in this case is the first we discussed: that the Policy was undertaken in furtherance of the government’s responsibilities, under a public school system, as guardian and tutor of children entrusted to its care. Just as when the government conducts a search in its capacity as employer (a warrantless search of an absent employee’s desk to obtain an urgently needed file, for example), the relevant question is whether that intrusion upon privacy is one that a reasonable employer might engage in; so also when the government acts as guardian and tutor the relevant question is whether the search is one that a reasonable guardian and tutor might undertake. Given the findings of need made by the District Court, we conclude that in the present case it is.

    We may note that the primary guardians of Vernonia’s schoolchildren appear to agree. The record shows no objection to this districtwide program by any parents other than the couple before us here—even though, as we have described, a public meeting was held to obtain parents’ views. We find insufficient basis to contradict the judgment of Vernonia’s parents, its school board, and the District Court, as to what was reasonably in the interest of these children under the circumstances.

    We [] vacate the judgment, and remand the case to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    Justice O’CONNOR, with whom Justice STEVENS and Justice SOUTER join, dissenting.

    The population of our Nation’s public schools, grades 7 through 12, numbers around 18 million. By the reasoning of today’s decision, the millions of these students who participate in interscholastic sports, an overwhelming majority of whom have given school officials no reason whatsoever to suspect they use drugs at school, are open to an intrusive bodily search.

    In justifying this result, the Court dispenses with a requirement of individualized suspicion on considered policy grounds. First, it explains that precisely because every student athlete is being tested, there is no concern that school officials might act arbitrarily in choosing whom to test. Second, a broad-based search regime, the Court reasons, dilutes the accusatory nature of the search. In making these policy arguments, of course, the Court sidesteps powerful, countervailing privacy concerns. Blanket searches, because they can involve “thousands or millions” of searches, “pos[e] a greater threat to liberty” than do suspicion-based ones, which “affec[t] one person at a time.” Searches based on individualized suspicion also afford potential targets considerable control over whether they will, in fact, be searched because a person can avoid such a search by not acting in an objectively suspicious way. And given that the surest way to avoid acting suspiciously is to avoid the underlying wrongdoing, the costs of such a regime, one would think, are minimal.

    But whether a blanket search is “better” than a regime based on individualized suspicion is not a debate in which we should engage. In my view, it is not open to judges or government officials to decide on policy grounds which is better and which is worse. For most of our constitutional history, mass, suspicionless searches have been generally considered per se unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. And we have allowed exceptions in recent years only where it has been clear that a suspicion-based regime would be ineffectual. Because that is not the case here, I dissent.

    * * *

    Seven years after deciding Vernonia, the Court considered a public school drug testing program that went beyond athletes and included participants in activities such as the debate team, band, and Future Farmers of America. While the district policy stated that students involved in any extracurricular activity could be tested, the record reflected that in practice testing was limited to participants in “competitive extracurricular activities.”

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Lindsay Earls

    Decided June 27, 2002 – 536 U.S. 822

    [In Earls, the Court applied the principles of Vernonia and upheld a suspicionless drug testing policy that required all students who participated in “competitive extracurricular activities”—a term with broad definition—to submit to drug testing. In an opinion by Justice Thomas, the five-Justice majority found no meaningful difference between the policies challenged in Earls and in Vernonia in the character of intrusion (based on a similar urine collection method) or the nature and immediacy of the government’s concerns (based on the national drug problem and the factual findings about local conditions).

    With respect to the students’ privacy interest, the Court was untroubled by the application of Vernonia to a broader category of student activities. The Court noted that required physicals and communal undress common to athletes were not essential to its finding of a negligible privacy interest in Vernonia, and it concluded the interest remained negligible in Earls because the students “who participate[d] in competitive extracurricular activities voluntarily subject[ed] themselves to many of the same intrusions on their privacy as do athletes.” The Court’s analysis of the efficacy of the Policy’s approach broadened Vernonia’s holding:

    “Finally, we find that testing students who participate in extracurricular activities is a reasonably effective means of addressing the School District’s legitimate concerns in preventing, deterring, and detecting drug use. While in Vernonia there might have been a closer fit between the testing of athletes and the trial court’s finding that the drug problem was “fueled by the ‘role model’ effect of athletes’ drug use,” such a finding was not essential to the holding. Vernonia did not require the school to test the group of students most likely to use drugs, but rather considered the constitutionality of the program in the context of the public school’s custodial responsibilities. Evaluating the Policy in this context, we conclude that the drug testing of Tecumseh students who participate in extracurricular activities effectively serves the School District’s interest in protecting the safety and health of its students.”

    Four Justices sharply disagreed with the result:]

    Justice GINSBURG, with whom Justice STEVENS, JUSTICE O’CONNOR, and Justice SOUTER join, dissenting.

    The particular testing program upheld today is not reasonable; it is capricious, even perverse: Petitioners’ policy targets for testing a student population least likely to be at risk from illicit drugs and their damaging effects. I therefore dissent.

    Vernonia cannot be read to endorse invasive and suspicionless drug testing of all students upon any evidence of drug use, solely because drugs jeopardize the life and health of those who use them. Had the Vernonia Court agreed that public school attendance, in and of itself, permitted the State to test each student’s blood or urine for drugs, the opinion in Vernonia could have saved many words.

    Enrollment in a public school, and election to participate in school activities beyond the bare minimum that the curriculum requires, are indeed factors relevant to reasonableness, but they do not on their own justify intrusive, suspicionless searches. Vernonia, accordingly, did not rest upon these factors; instead, the Court performed what today’s majority aptly describes as a “fact-specific balancing,” Balancing of that order, applied to the facts now before the Court, should yield a result other than the one the Court announces today.

    At the margins, of course, no policy of random drug testing is perfectly tailored to the harms it seeks to address. The School District cites the dangers faced by members of the band, who must “perform extremely precise routines with heavy equipment and instruments in close proximity to other students,” and by Future Farmers of America, who “are required to individually control and restrain animals as large as 1500 pounds.” Notwithstanding nightmarish images of out-of-control flatware, livestock run amok, and colliding tubas disturbing the peace and quiet of Tecumseh, the great majority of students the School District seeks to test in truth are engaged in activities that are not safety sensitive to an unusual degree. There is a difference between imperfect tailoring and no tailoring at all.

    The Vernonia district, in sum, had two good reasons for testing athletes: Sports team members faced special health risks and they “were the leaders of the drug culture.” No similar reason, and no other tenable justification, explains Tecumseh’s decision to target for testing all participants in every competitive extracurricular activity.

    Nationwide, students who participate in extracurricular activities are significantly less likely to develop substance abuse problems than are their less-involved peers. Even if students might be deterred from drug use in order to preserve their extracurricular eligibility, it is at least as likely that other students might forgo their extracurricular involvement in order to avoid detection of their drug use. Tecumseh’s policy thus falls short doubly if deterrence is its aim: It invades the privacy of students who need deterrence least, and risks steering students at greatest risk for substance abuse away from extracurricular involvement that potentially may palliate drug problems.

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Since the Court decided Vernonia and Earls, public schools have continued to explore how much of the student population can be subjected to mandatory drug testing. Although courts have not yet approved a policy mandating the testing of all students at a public school, school districts have been largely successful in requiring testing of broad portions of the student population.

    Consider these examples:

    Some schools have required students to submit to drug testing if they wish to park on school grounds. See, e.g., Joy v. Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp., 212 F.3d 1052 (7th Cir. 2000). Lawful? Why or why not?

    A public technical college adopted a policy requiring that all students at the college submit to drug tests. See Kittle-Aikeley v. Strong, 844 F.3d 727 (8th Cir. 2016) (en banc). Lawful? Why or why not? What if the policy applied only to students in certain academic programs?

    In the case of the technical college, the Eighth Circuit upheld mandatory drug testing of students enrolled in “safety-sensitive programs.” Dissenting judges would have allowed testing of all students because there was no reason “to assume that [the college’s] students pursuing an education in its non-safety-sensitive programs are not likewise fully impacted by the same illicit drug-abuse crisis” that justified the testing of students in safety-sensitive programs. Other courts could reach different results in similar cases.

    According to a national survey of school districts, many public schools operate drug testing programs that involve random testing of all students, seemingly in excess of what the Court has allowed. See Chris Ringwalt et al., “Random Drug Testing in US Public School Districts,” 98 Am. J. Pub. Health 826 (May 2008) (“28% randomly tested all students”). Further litigation on this issue seems likely.

    Drug Testing of Public Hospital Patients

    In Ferguson v. City of Charleston, the Court considered a public hospital’s practice of testing patient urine for drugs to learn whether pregnant women were using cocaine. It applied the reasoning of the public employee and public school student drug test cases to the program.

    Supreme Court of the United States

    Crystal M. Ferguson v. City of Charleston

    Decided March 21, 2001 – 532 U.S. 67

    Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

    In this case, we must decide whether a state hospital’s performance of a diagnostic test to obtain evidence of a patient’s criminal conduct for law enforcement purposes is an unreasonable search if the patient has not consented to the procedure. More narrowly, the question is whether the interest in using the threat of criminal sanctions to deter pregnant women from using cocaine can justify a departure from the general rule that an official nonconsensual search is unconstitutional if not authorized by a valid warrant.


    In the fall of 1988, staff members at the public hospital operated in the city of Charleston by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) became concerned about an apparent increase in the use of cocaine by patients who were receiving prenatal treatment.1 In response to this perceived increase, as of April 1989, MUSC began to order drug screens to be performed on urine samples from maternity patients who were suspected of using cocaine. If a patient tested positive, she was then referred by MUSC staff to the county substance abuse commission for counseling and treatment. However, despite the referrals, the incidence of cocaine use among the patients at MUSC did not appear to change.

    Some four months later, Nurse Shirley Brown, the case manager for the MUSC obstetrics department, heard a news broadcast reporting that the police in Greenville, South Carolina, were arresting pregnant users of cocaine on the theory that such use harmed the fetus and was therefore child abuse. Nurse Brown discussed the story with MUSC’s general counsel, Joseph C. Good, Jr., who then contacted Charleston Solicitor Charles Condon in order to offer MUSC’s cooperation in prosecuting mothers whose children tested positive for drugs at birth.

    After receiving Good’s letter, Solicitor Condon took the first steps in developing the policy at issue in this case. He organized the initial meetings, decided who would participate, and issued the invitations, in which he described his plan to prosecute women who tested positive for cocaine while pregnant. The task force that Condon formed included representatives of MUSC, the police, the County Substance Abuse Commission and the Department of Social Services. Their deliberations led to MUSC’s adoption of a 12-page document entitled “POLICY M-7,” dealing with the subject of “Management of Drug Abuse During Pregnancy.”

    The first three pages of Policy M-7 set forth the procedure to be followed by the hospital staff to “identify/assist pregnant patients suspected of drug abuse.” The first section, entitled the “Identification of Drug Abusers,” provided that a patient should be tested for cocaine through a urine drug screen if she met one or more of nine criteria.2 It also stated that a chain of custody should be followed when obtaining and testing urine samples, presumably to make sure that the results could be used in subsequent criminal proceedings. The policy also provided for education and referral to a substance abuse clinic for patients who tested positive. Most important, it added the threat of law enforcement intervention that “provided the necessary ‘leverage’ to make the [p]olicy effective.” That threat was, as respondents candidly acknowledge, essential to the program’s success in getting women into treatment and keeping them there.

    The threat of law enforcement involvement was set forth in two protocols, the first dealing with the identification of drug use during pregnancy, and the second with identification of drug use after labor. Under the latter protocol, the police were to be notified without delay and the patient promptly arrested. Under the former, after the initial positive drug test, the police were to be notified (and the patient arrested) only if the patient tested positive for cocaine a second time or if she missed an appointment with a substance abuse counselor. In 1990, however, the policy was modified at the behest of the solicitor’s office to give the patient who tested positive during labor, like the patient who tested positive during a prenatal care visit, an opportunity to avoid arrest by consenting to substance abuse treatment.

    The last six pages of the policy contained forms for the patients to sign, as well as procedures for the police to follow when a patient was arrested. The policy also prescribed in detail the precise offenses with which a woman could be charged, depending on the stage of her pregnancy. If the pregnancy was 27 weeks or less, the patient was to be charged with simple possession. If it was 28 weeks or more, she was to be charged with possession and distribution to a person under the age of 18—in this case, the fetus. If she delivered “while testing positive for illegal drugs,” she was also to be charged with unlawful neglect of a child. Under the policy, the police were instructed to interrogate the arrestee in order “to ascertain the identity of the subject who provided illegal drugs to the suspect.” Other than the provisions describing the substance abuse treatment to be offered to women who tested positive, the policy made no mention of any change in the prenatal care of such patients, nor did it prescribe any special treatment for the newborns.


    Petitioners are 10 women who received obstetrical care at MUSC and who were arrested after testing positive for cocaine. Four of them were arrested during the initial implementation of the policy; they were not offered the opportunity to receive drug treatment as an alternative to arrest. The others were arrested after the policy was modified in 1990; they either failed to comply with the terms of the drug treatment program or tested positive for a second time. Respondents include the city of Charleston, law enforcement officials who helped develop and enforce the policy, and representatives of MUSC.

    Petitioners’ complaint challenged the validity of the policy. The jury found for respondents. Petitioners appealed [and] [t]he Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. We granted certiorari to review the appellate court’s holding on the “special needs” issue.3 We conclude that the judgment should be reversed and the case remanded for a decision on the consent issue.


    Because MUSC is a state hospital, the members of its staff are government actors, subject to the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, the urine tests conducted by those staff members were indisputably searches within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Neither the District Court nor the Court of Appeals concluded that any of the nine criteria used to identify the women to be searched provided either probable cause to believe that they were using cocaine, or even the basis for a reasonable suspicion of such use. Furthermore, given the posture in which the case comes to us, we must assume for purposes of our decision that the tests were performed without the informed consent of the patients.

    Because the hospital seeks to justify its authority to conduct drug tests and to turn the results over to law enforcement agents without the knowledge or consent of the patients, this case differs from the four previous cases in which we have considered whether comparable drug tests “fit within the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless searches.”

    In each of those cases, we employed a balancing test that weighed the intrusion on the individual’s interest in privacy against the “special needs” that supported the program. As an initial matter, we note that the invasion of privacy in this case is far more substantial than in those cases. In the previous four cases, there was no misunderstanding about the purpose of the test or the potential use of the test results, and there were protections against the dissemination of the results to third parties. The use of an adverse test result to disqualify one from eligibility for a particular benefit, such as a promotion or an opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity, involves a less serious intrusion on privacy than the unauthorized dissemination of such results to third parties. The reasonable expectation of privacy enjoyed by the typical patient undergoing diagnostic tests in a hospital is that the results of those tests will not be shared with nonmedical personnel without her consent. In none of our prior cases was there any intrusion upon that kind of expectation.

    The critical difference between those four drug-testing cases and this one, however, lies in the nature of the “special need” asserted as justification for the warrantless searches. In each of those earlier cases, the “special need” that was advanced as a justification for the absence of a warrant or individualized suspicion was one divorced from the State’s general interest in law enforcement. In this case, however, the central and indispensable feature of the policy from its inception was the use of law enforcement to coerce the patients into substance abuse treatment. This fact distinguishes this case from circumstances in which physicians or psychologists, in the course of ordinary medical procedures aimed at helping the patient herself, come across information that under rules of law or ethics is subject to reporting requirements, which no one has challenged here.

    Respondents argue in essence that their ultimate purpose—namely, protecting the health of both mother and child—is a beneficent one. [A] review of the M-7 policy plainly reveals that the purpose actually served by the MUSC searches “is ultimately indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control.”

    In looking to the programmatic purpose, we consider all the available evidence in order to determine the relevant primary purpose. In this case, as Judge Blake put it in her dissent below, “it … is clear from the record that an initial and continuing focus of the policy was on the arrest and prosecution of drug-abusing mothers….” Tellingly, the document codifying the policy incorporates the police’s operational guidelines. It devotes its attention to the chain of custody, the range of possible criminal charges, and the logistics of police notification and arrests. Nowhere, however, does the document discuss different courses of medical treatment for either mother or infant, aside from treatment for the mother’s addiction. Moreover, throughout the development and application of the policy, the Charleston prosecutors and police were extensively involved in the day-to-day administration of the policy.

    While the ultimate goal of the program may well have been to get the women in question into substance abuse treatment and off of drugs, the immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach that goal. The threat of law enforcement may ultimately have been intended as a means to an end, but the direct and primary purpose of MUSC’s policy was to ensure the use of those means. In our opinion, this distinction is critical. Because law enforcement involvement always serves some broader social purpose or objective, under respondents’ view, virtually any nonconsensual suspicionless search could be immunized under the special needs doctrine by defining the search solely in terms of its ultimate, rather than immediate, purpose. Such an approach is inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment. Given the primary purpose of the Charleston program, which was to use the threat of arrest and prosecution in order to force women into treatment, and given the extensive involvement of law enforcement officials at every stage of the policy, this case simply does not fit within the closely guarded category of “special needs.”

    The fact that positive test results were turned over to the police does not merely provide a basis for distinguishing our prior cases applying the “special needs” balancing approach to the determination of drug use. It also provides an affirmative reason for enforcing the strictures of the Fourth Amendment. While state hospital employees, like other citizens, may have a duty to provide the police with evidence of criminal conduct that they inadvertently acquire in the course of routine treatment, when they undertake to obtain such evidence from their patients for the specific purpose of incriminating those patients, they have a special obligation to make sure that the patients are fully informed about their constitutional rights, as standards of knowing waiver require.

    As respondents have repeatedly insisted, their motive was benign rather than punitive. Such a motive, however, cannot justify a departure from Fourth Amendment protections, given the pervasive involvement of law enforcement with the development and application of the MUSC policy. The stark and unique fact that characterizes this case is that Policy M-7 was designed to obtain evidence of criminal conduct by the tested patients that would be turned over to the police and that could be admissible in subsequent criminal prosecutions. While respondents are correct that drug abuse both was and is a serious problem, “the gravity of the threat alone cannot be dispositive of questions concerning what means law enforcement officers may employ to pursue a given purpose.” The Fourth Amendment’s general prohibition against nonconsensual, warrantless, and suspicionless searches necessarily applies to such a policy.

    Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

    [In a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia attacked the majority opinion on multiple fronts. First, he disputed whether any Fourth Amendment “search” had occurred, arguing that eliminated urine is abandoned and should be treated like the garbage at issue in California v. Greenwood (Chapter 3). Second, he argued that patients consented to the collection of urine by hospital officials. Finally he argued that even if somehow the hospital’s collection of urine were a search to which patients did not consent, the “special-needs doctrine” would easily justify the drug testing to “protect both mother and unborn child.”]

    Notes, Comments, and Questions

    Although no one today would recommend use of crack cocaine by pregnant women, it turns out that much of the science behind the so-called “crack baby” epidemic has been debunked. Predictions like that of “a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth”—from a 1989 column in the Washington Post—or a flood of 4 million kids whose “neurological, emotional and learning problems will severely test teachers and schools”—from a 1990 article in the New York Timesappear alarmist in hindsight. See Vann R. Newkirk II, “What the ‘Crack Baby’ Panic Reveals about the Opioid Epidemic,” Atlantic (July 16, 2017) (noting the greater empathy extended to pregnant women using opiates than was shown to crack-addicted mothers). Legal scholars noted that in the late 1980s, a trend emerged wherein prosecutors used laws previously used to punish abuse of children after birth—such as involuntary manslaughter and delivery of drugs to a minor—to prosecute pregnant drug users. See, e.g., Doretta Massardo McGinnis, Comment, “Prosecution of Mothers of Drug-Exposed Babies: Constitutional and Criminal Theory,” 139 U. Pa. L. Rev. 505 (1990).

    Had Ferguson v. City of Charleston been decided in 1991 instead of 2001, the Court might well have reached a different result. The concerns raised by Justice Scalia in his dissent—the need to “protect both mother and unborn child”—echo comments of pundits and of policy makers from the height of the crack-baby scare.

    In our next chapter, we consider our final selection of exceptions to the warrant requirement.