Board of Education v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002) (Students)

Drug testing of students by public school officials constitutes a search that must be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. In Board of Education v. Earls, the Court addressed the lawfulness of warrantless, suspicionless drug testing of students.

A school district in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, implemented a policy that required all students who participated in competitive extracurricular activities to submit to drug testing. Students Lindsay Earls and Daniel James, with their parents, sued the school district, arguing that the drug testing policy violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Court commenced its analysis by observing that the usual requirements of a search warrant and probable cause are uniquely situated to criminal investigations and may not be suitable for determining the reasonableness of searches intended to prevent future harms. Instead, the reasonableness of administrative searches is determined by balancing the government’s legitimate interests in the search against the intrusion on individual privacy interests.

The Court had previously held that students’ expectations of privacy are reduced in light of schools’ responsibility for their health, education, discipline, and safety. Examining the specific policy at issue, the Court characterized the intrusion upon student privacy interests as relatively minor. Students provided urine samples in a closed restroom stall, test results were confidential, and the only consequence of a failed test was to limit the student’s participation in extracurricular activities. Results did not carry academic, criminal, or other disciplinary consequences.

In contrast, the Court deemed the district’s interest in drug testing as substantial. Although the government did not demonstrate a pervasive drug problem in its district, it did present evidence that some students had possessed or used drugs. Additionally, the Court noted a nationwide drug ‘‘epidemic.’’ Weighing the intrusion on privacy interests against the government’s interest in preventing and detecting drug use by schoolchildren, the Court found the policy to be reasonable.

In doing so, the Court extended its earlier ruling in Vernonia School District v. Acton, which applied only to school athletes. In Vernonia, the Court emphasized the safety hazards of drug use in athletes, as well as the reduced expectations of privacy in a locker-room atmosphere. Nevertheless, the Court found that the absence of these facts did not tip the reasonableness balance against the broader policy challenged in Earls.

Just as Vernonia did not determine the constitutionality of drug testing nonathletes, Earls does not resolve the constitutionality of testing students who do not participate in extracurricular activities. In its fact-specific analysis, the majority noted that students who engaged in extracurricular activities voluntarily subjected themselves to some intrusions on their privacy, and that the only consequence of a failed test was to limit participation in extracurricular activities. One member of the majority, Justice Breyer, wrote a concurring opinion emphasizing that the policy did not apply to the entire school. Four justices dissented, reasoning that Vernonia was limited to athletes. Accordingly, it is possible that a majority of the Court might find unreasonable a drug testing policy that applied to all students.

ALAFAIR S. BURKE

References and Further Reading

  • Smiley, Jennifer E., Comment. Rethinking the ’Special Needs’ Doctrine: Suspicionless Drug Testing of High School Students and the Narrowing of Fourth Amendment Protections, Northwestern University Law Review 95 (2001): 811. 
  • Sundby, Scott E., Protecting the Citizen ’Whilst He Is Quiet’: Suspicionless Searches, ’Special Needs’ and General Warrants, Mississippi Law Journal 74 (2004): 501. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Vernonia School District v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995) 

See also Administrative Searches and Seizures; Drug Testing; Probable Cause; Search (General Definition); Search Warrants

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