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Drug Testing Court Cases


The legal status of drug testing has been made most clear through dozens of court cases dealing with the issue. One publication discussing the legal aspects of drug testing identified forty-one major court cases involving the issue of privacy.  A similar publication reported over four hundred cases in which drug test­ing was involved at least to some extent.

Landmark Supreme Court cases have been most valuable in determining what kinds of drug testing programs employers may and may not institute. Three of the most important Supreme Court deci­sions have been Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Association in 1989, National Treasury Employees Union v. von Raab in 1989, and Chandler et al. v. Miller, Governor of Georgia et al. in 1997. In the Skinner case, the issue was whether the Federal Railroad Administration could require blood and urine tests of all rail personnel involved in serious accidents. In the National Treasury Employees Union case, the question was whether the Customs Service could require urinalysis of any employee seeking a promotion or a transfer to a position dealing with illegal drug trafficking, firearms, or classified mate­rials. In the Chandler case, the issue involved a state law in Georgia that required candidates for certain public offices to take drug tests.

All of these cases (as well as most other cases) required the justices to choose between two fundamental rights. The first is the right that American citizens have to privacy and to protection from "unreasonable searches and seizures" by the government. This right is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment of the u.s. Constitution. The second is the right of the government to protect the health and safety of citizens when that can be shown to be more important than the right of individual privacy.

As an example, Americans are guaranteed the right of free speech by the Constitution. However, that right is not unlimited. In a famous case on the rights of free speech, a Supreme Court Justice remarked that a person had no right to stand up in a crowded movie theater and yell "Fire!" The government is obligated to make sure that public health and safety are not endangered by an individual's free speech.

In both Skinner and National Treasury Employees Union the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government. The Court based its decisions on a principle of "special needs" that went beyond the ordinary needs of law enforcement. It ruled that, in certain circumstances, the need to protect the safety of the general public was more important than pro­tecting the privacy rights of individual citizens.

In the Chandler case, the Court ruled differently. It said that the state of Georgia had failed to prove that a drug problem existed among state officials, or that those officials performed high risk, safety ­sensitive tasks that demanded special protection, or that the law being challenged would provide any protection against the use of drugs by public officials. The court further said that the only case made successfully by the state of Georgia was a symbolic one in standing up against drug abuse. "The Fourth Amendment," the Court concluded, "shields society from state action that diminishes personal privacy for a symbol's sake.

It is important to realize that the decisions in these three cases apply to the actions of government bodies. The Fourth Amendment was written to pro­tect citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures" by agencies of the government. There is no similar constitutional protection against the action of individuals and companies. Essentially, private employers have an unlimited right to carry out drug testing programs in their companies.

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