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

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In this case, the Supreme Court significantly restricted the protections of the fourth amendment. The Court had never before sustained a body search apart from arrest and without suspicion of individual wrongdoing, except with respect to prison inmates. In Skinner the Court sustained the constitutionality of government regulations requiring blood and urine tests by railroad employees involved in train accidents and by those who violated certain safety rules.

Employee abuse of alcohol and drugs resulting in jeopardy to the public explains the regulations and the decision. Drunken employees had caused accidents from the beginning of railroad history, and employees drugged by use of other substances were responsible for dozens of accidents killing and maiming passengers and inflicting damages amounting to millions of dollars.

A 7–2 Court, speaking through Justice anthony m. kennedy, upheld both the compulsory and discretionary drug testing as well as the alcohol testing. Kennedy recognized that the urine and blood tests were searches within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, but held that probable cause was an irrelevant consideration. Searches had to be reasonable, but did not have to satisfy the search warrant requirement. Accordingly, the mandatory searches of employees involved in an accident did not violate the amendment because specificity individualized suspicion was not necessary. (Reasonable suspicion based on individual conduct was necessary, according to the federal regulations, when an employee had violated safety requirements but had not been involved in an accident.) Kennedy asserted, rather than explained, that the warrant requirement was irrelevant because it might stymie governmental objectives of promoting safety.

Similarly, he asserted that privacy interests implicated in the blood and urine testing were "minimal." Blood and breath tests were commonplace, safe, and painless. Urine testing, by contrast, was intrusive, but the expectations of privacy on the part of employees were diminished by their knowledge that their industry was severely regulated to promote safety and that their fitness was related to safety. The government interest in requiring the tests was simply compelling, overriding any privacy or Fourth Amendment rights that might prevail in a criminal case.

Justice thurgood marshall, joined by Justice william j. brennan, shrilly dissented. The tests, which the majority thought to be minor invasions of privacy, were "draconian," exacted from employees who had personally given no basis for belief that they were guilty of working under the influence of drugs or alcohol. "The majority's acceptance of dragnet blood and urine testing ensures that the first, and worst, casualty of war on drugs will be the precious liberties of our citizens." All precedents required individualized suspicion before warrantless blood testing could be sustained. Privacy interests offended by compulsory and supervised urine testing could not be dismissed as "minimal." The chemical analysis of blood and urine specimens also conflicted with privacy interests. Such analysis could reveal a variety of medical disorders that were none of the government's business. Marshall believed that railroad workers did not relinquish their constitutional rights by taking employment in a regulated industry; furthering the public safety had to be subordinated to constitutional rights.

If the entire public, not just airline employees, must submit to warrantless search without probable cause or individual suspicion to enter passenger areas in airports, promoting public safety in railroads seem an adequate reason for the testing of railroad employees who break safety rules or are involved in an accident. A consideration of that sort did not, however, obtain in the companion case of national treasury employees union v. von raab (1989).

Leonard W. Levy

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

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