National Treasury Employee Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989)

2012-08-08 21:38:00

Employee drug testing is common in the United States, particularly in government agencies. Advocates contend that testing programs increase job safety, reduce costs, and support drug law enforcement, while opponents argue that these schemes intrude on privacy and violate constitutional rights. In National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, the Supreme Court held that a drug testing program for U.S. customs agents was consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

Von Raab addressed urinalysis testing for employees who carried firearms or were directly involved in drug interdiction. Because this search served special needs beyond ordinary law enforcement, the legal analysis was based on a balancing of governmental interests and individual privacy expectations. According to the Court, privacy concerns were diminished by the operational realities of the customs service and the nonintrusive testing procedures. In turn, the government had a compelling interest in preventing employees who use drugs from serving on the front lines of interdiction due to their susceptibility to bribery or blackmail and possible apathy toward drug enforcement goals. The government had a similar interest in those agents who carried firearms and thereby posed risks to innocent citizens from impaired perception and judgment. For these reasons, the Court found the program constitutional in the absence of warrants and individualized suspicion.

Since Von Raab and its companion case, Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association (1989), the Court has considered four additional drug testing regimes, upholding two and striking down two. The resulting jurisprudence has produced a level of uncertainty in the lower courts.


References and Further Reading

  • Symposium: Drug Testing in the Workplace, William & Mary Law Review 33 (1991): 1–252.
  • Welfing, John B., Employer Drug Testing: Disparate Judicial and Legislative Responses, Albany Law Review 63 (2000): 799–832.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association, 489 U.S. 602 (1989)

See also Administrative Searches and Seizures; Board of Education v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002) (students); Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997) (candidates); Drug Testing; Search (General Definition); Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association, 489 U.S. 602 (1989); Vernonia School District v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995); War on Drugs; Warrant Clause (IV); Warrantless Searches