Supreme Court rules on drug tests
WASHINGTON (AP) – Public hospitals cannot test pregnant women for drugs and turn the results over to police without consent, the Supreme Court said Wednesday in a ruling that buttressed the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches.
Some women who tested positive for drugs at a South Carolina public hospital were arrested from their beds shortly after giving birth.
The justices ruled 6-3 that such testing without patients’ consent violates the Constitution even though the goal was to prevent women from harming their fetuses by using crack cocaine.
”It’s a very, very important decision in protecting the right to privacy of all Americans,” said Priscilla Smith, lawyer for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, who represented the South Carolina women. ”It reaffirms that pregnant women have that same right to a confidential relationship with their doctors.”
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court that while the ultimate goal of the hospital’s testing program may have been to get women into drug treatment, ”the immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach that goal.”
When hospitals gather evidence ”for the specific purpose of incriminating those patients, they have a special obligation to make sure that the patients are fully informed about their constitutional rights,” Stevens said.
South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon, who as a local prosecutor in Charleston began the testing program, issued a statement saying the program can continue if police get a search warrant or the patient’s consent. ”There is no right of a mother to jeopardize the health and safety of an unborn child through her own drug abuse,” Condon wrote.
Condon developed the policy along with officials at the Medical University of South Carolina, a Charleston hospital that treats indigent patients. The women were arrested under the state’s child-endangerment law, but their lawyers contended the policy was counterproductive and would deter women from seeking prenatal care.
Stevens’ opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy filed a separate opinion also concluding such tests are unlawful.
Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Writing for the three, Scalia said doctors are supposed to have patients’ welfare in mind, and ”that they have in mind in addition the provision of evidence to the police should make no difference.”
The justices ordered a lower court to consider the Charleston hospital’s argument that the women actually consented to the tests.
The Constitution’s Fourth Amendment generally requires that searches be authorized by a court warrant or based on reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.
The Supreme Court has allowed drug testing without a warrant or individual suspicion when the government can demonstrate a ”special need” – for example, preventing drug use by public high school students or by railroad workers. However, the results in such cases would not be turned over to police.
”The invasion of privacy in this case is far more substantial than in those cases,” Stevens wrote, noting that patients normally expect medical test results to be kept private.
The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said the South Carolina hospital’s drug-testing policy was a valid effort to reduce crack cocaine use by pregnant women.
The hospital began the drug testing in 1989 during the crack cocaine epidemic. If a woman’s urine test indicated cocaine use, she was arrested for distributing the drug to a minor. In 1990 the hospital gave drug-using maternity patients a choice between arrest or enrolling for drug treatment.
Ten women sued the hospital in 1993, saying the policy violated the Constitution. The hospital dropped the policy the following year, but by then police had arrested 30 women.
The Supreme Court ruling was one of several recent decisions that have buttressed the protection against unreasonable searches. Last year the justices said police cannot set up random roadblocks to hunt for illegal drugs, and that police must get travelers’ consent or a court warrant before squeezing their luggage to see if drugs might be inside.
But in February, the justices ruled that police who believe drug suspects will destroy evidence can keep them from entering their homes until police get a search warrant.
Wednesday’s case is Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 99-936.
On the Net: For the Supreme Court web site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov
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