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Ferguson v. City of Charleston


Staff members at a public hospital became concerned about an apparent increase in the use of cocaine by patients who were receiving prenatal treatment. The staff offered to cooperate with the city in prosecuting mothers whose children tested positive for drugs at birth. A task force consisting of hospital representatives, police, and local officials developed a policy which set forth procedures for identifying and testing pregnant patients suspected of drug use.


Whether the policy-imposed drug tests constituted an unreasonable search?


Yes. These drug tests conducted for criminal investigatory purposes were searches and not justified without consent, exigency or a warrant.


A state hospital’s performance of a diagnostic test to obtain evidence of a patient’s criminal conduct for law enforcement purposes is a search. The interest in using the threat of criminal sanctions to deter pregnant women from using cocaine does not justify a departure from the general rule that a search is unconstitutional if not authorized by a valid warrant, or warrant exception.

This case differed from the previous cases in which the Court considered whether comparable drug tests fit within the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless searches. Those cases employed a balancing test weighing the intrusion on the individual’s privacy interest against the “special needs” of the government that supported the program. In previous cases, there was no misunderstanding about the purpose of the test or the potential use of the test results, and there were protections against the dissemination of the results to third parties (such as prosecutors). The critical difference lies in the nature of the “special need” asserted. In each of the prior cases, the “special need” was one divorced from the government’s general law enforcement interest.

While the ultimate goal of the program may well have been to get the women in question into substance abuse treatment and off drugs, the immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes. Given that purpose and given the extensive involvement of law enforcement officials at every stage of the policy, this case did not fit within the closely guarded category of “special needs.”


532 U.S. 67, 121 S. Ct. 1281 (2000)

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