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Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Association


Upon learning that alcohol and drug abuse by railroad employees had caused or contributed to a number of significant train accidents, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) promulgated regulations under the Secretary of Transportation’s authority to adopt safety standards for the industry. The regulations required blood and urine tests of covered employees to be conducted following certain major train accidents or incidents and authorized, but did not require railroads to administer breath or urine tests to covered employees who violate certain safety rules. The Railway Labor Executives’ Association and members of labor organizations brought suit in the Federal court to enjoin the regulations.


Whether the regulations were so overly intrusive as to constitute an unreasonable search of the employees’ persons?


No. The government has a special need in protecting the public from intoxicated operators of the railway system that warrants suspicion-less, warrantless searches.


Though those conducting the testing were not government employees, the Fourth Amendment is applicable to drug and alcohol testing mandated by federal regulations. A railroad that complies with the regulations does so by compulsion and must be viewed as an agent of the government. Similarly, even though some of the regulations do not compel railroads to test, such testing is not primarily the result of private initiative. Specific features of the regulations combine to establish that the government has actively encouraged, endorsed, and participated in the testing.

The collection and analysis of the samples required or authorized by the regulations constitute searches. The Court has long recognized that a compelled intrusion into the body for blood to be tested for alcohol content constitutes a search. Similarly, subjecting a person to the breath test authorized by the regulations is deemed a search, since it requires the production of “deep lung” breath and thereby implicates concerns about bodily integrity. Although the collection and testing of urine under the regulations do not entail any intrusion into the body, they nevertheless constitute searches since they intrude upon expectations of privacy as to medical information.

The mandate of the Fourth Amendment is that all searches be reasonable. The drug and alcohol tests regulations are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment even though there is no requirement of a warrant or a reasonable suspicion that any particular employee may be impaired, since the government has a compelling interest that outweighs employees’ privacy concerns. The government’s interest in regulating the conduct of railroad employees engaged in safety-sensitive tasks in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public and of the employees themselves justifies prohibiting such employees from using alcohol or drugs while on duty or on call for duty. The proposed tests are not an unduly extensive imposition on an individual’s privacy. The government’s interest presents “special needs” beyond normal law enforcement that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable cause requirements.


489 U.S. 602, 109 S. Ct. 1402 (1989)

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