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

2012-09-05 09:08:12

Drug testing has become a regular feature of American employment, especially in government jobs. Since the mid-1980s, both federal and state agencies and numerous regulated industries have implemented testing programs for their employees. Although advocates suggest that drug testing increases job safety, cuts costs, and helps fight the ‘‘war on drugs,’’ opponents argue that such programs amount to ‘‘chemical McCarthyism’’ and an invasion of personal privacy. In Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association, the Supreme Court held that a drug-testing scheme for railroad employees did not violate the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure protections.

The issue in Skinner concerned federal regulations promulgated in response to a history of alcohol and drug abuse by railroad employees, resulting in fatal and costly train accidents. Pursuant to these regulations, employees involved in certain accidents were required to undergo blood and urine tests after the event. Testing could also occur when an employee violated particular rules or when a supervisor had reasonable suspicion that the employee was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Positive results or an employee’s refusal to undergo testing could be used in disciplinary proceedings and might result in job-related punishment. Various labor organizations brought suit to enjoin the enforcement of the drug testing regulations.

The Court recognized that the collection of samples (for example, monitoring the act of urination) intruded on personal privacy whereas the chemical analysis of such samples constituted a search by revealing intimate information. The Fourth Amendment does not ban all searches, however, but only unreasonable ones based on a balancing of government prerogatives and individual privacy interests. In particular, the Court cited approvingly its evolving ‘‘special needs’’ doctrine that permitted searches in the absence of warrants and probable cause when ‘‘special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement,’’ make these requirements ‘‘impracticable.’’

According to the Court, the government had a compelling interest in the drug-testing program, given that a misstep by an intoxicated worker could cause extensive damage and fatalities without an opportunity for a supervisor to intervene. And although an individual’s privacy interests were not trivial, they were diminished by the nonintrusive nature of the testing procedures and the high degree of regulation in the railroad industry. In these circumstances, requiring a warrant would impede the timely analysis of samples and might be beyond the grasp of railroad supervisors. Likewise, obtaining individualized suspicion would be difficult if not impossible in the chaotic aftermath of a train accident. The Court also suggested that the testing regime served a complementary purpose, deterring drug use among employees in the first place.

Since Skinner and its companion case, National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, the Court has considered four other regimes, upholding student drug testing in the Acton and Earls decisions and invalidating testing programs for political candidates in Chandler v. Miller and for pregnant mothers in Ferguson v. City of Charleston. The end result has been a crazy quilt of jurisprudence and a great deal of confusion in the lower courts.


References and Further Reading

  • Coombs, Robert H., and Louis Jolyon West. Drugs Testing: Issues and Options. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Gilliom, John. Surveillance, Privacy, and the Law: Employee Drug Testing and the Politics of Social Control. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
  • Normand, Jacques, Richard O. Lempert, and Charles P. O’Brien. Under the Influence: Drugs and the American Workforce. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993.
  • Schulhofer, Stephen J., On the Fourth Amendment Rights of the Law-Abiding Public, Supreme Court Review (1989): 87–163.
  • Symposium: Drug Testing in the Workplace, William & Mary Law Review 33 (1991): 1–252.
  • Tunnell, Kenneth D. Pissing on Demand: Workplace Drug Testing and the Rise of the Detox Industry. New York: New York University Press, 2004.
  • Welfing, John B., Employer Drug Testing: Disparate Judicial and Legislative Responses, Albany Law Review 63 (2000): 799–832.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Board of Education v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002)
  • Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997)
  • Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 532 U.S. 67 (2001)
  • National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989)
  • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995)

See also Administrative Searches and Seizures; Board of Education v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002); Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997); Drug Testing; National Treasury Employee Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989); Search (General Definition); Vernonia School District v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995); War on Drugs; Warrant Clause (IV); Warrantless Searches