Drug tests and your rights

The Supreme Court finally draws a limit.
Will the ruling affect the Iowa debate?

In the opening paragraph of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on government-mandated drug tests for political candidates, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: "The Fourth Amendment requires government to respect the right of the people to be secure in their persons. . . against unreasonable searches and seizures.'"

It's nice to see the court has not forgotten that part of the Bill of Rights.

In recent years, the court has steadily whittled away at the Constitution's shield against unnecessary government searches. In the matter of forcing candidates for political office to go through the invasive process of drug testing, however, the count was nearly unanimous in holding that such searches are unconstitutional.

As a general proposition, the court has regarded drug tests mandated by a government body - federal, state or local - to be "searches" under the Fourth Amendment. And, such searches are only permissible where there is reasonable suspicion. By definition, drug tests conducted randomly or on all applicants, as in the case of Georgia political candidates, lack the element of suspicions.

Justice Ginsburg shredded Georgia's contention that the mere possibility that there might be drug abusers among political office-seekers was sufficient justification for the tests. In fact, Ginsburg quoted from the state attorney's testimony that there "is no such evidence" of a drug problem among state officeholders.

Although the court has in recent years upheld state and federal laws requiring random, suspicionless drug tests by government bodies - in the case of federally regulated railroad engineers, Treasury Department drug agents and high-school athletes in public schools - the court has regarded each as a unique exception: public safety in the case of railroad engineers; law-enforcement integrity in the case of Treasury agents, and public schools' role as guardians in the case of high-school athletes.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist alone among the nine justices saw no constitutional problems with government-ordered, suspicionless, drug tests.

"It would tax a bolder person than I to say that such widespread drug usage could never extend to candidates for public office such as governor of Georgia," Rehnquist wrote. "But surely the state need not wait for a drug addict, or one inclined to use drugs illegally, to run for or actually become governor before it installs a prophylactic mechanism."

If that were the standard, every American could be required to yield up urine or blood samples to the government as part of a nationwide drug-fighting campaign. Fortunately, the majority of the court has greater respect for the Constitution than that.

How does this apply to the drug-testing debate in the Iowa Legislature? To the extent that this ruling applies only to government action, which is subject to constitutional limits, as opposed to a private employer, which is not, there is no direct application. But the principle that a citizen should be secure against unreasonable searches should apply in the workplace, too. Is a suspicionless search by your employer any less objectionable than such a search by the government?

The standard for drug tests established by the Supreme Court for the government - that there must be either reasonable cause for suspicion or limited exceptions for unique situations - should be the standard in the private-sector workplace.

Des Moines Register, April 21, 1997