Student Drug Testing: Relevant Case Law

Document Date: October 21, 2002


Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305 (1997): The Supreme Court found unconstitutional a Georgia statute requiring candidates for state offices to certify that they had tested negative in a drug urinalysis. Stating that the law, introduced to show the state’s commitment to challenging drug abuse, “diminishes personal privacy for a symbol’s sake,” the Court held that Georgia failed to show a special need substantial enough to override the candidates’ privacy interests.

Board of Education v. Earls, 122 S.Ct. 2559 (2002): The Supreme Court held constitutional an Oklahoma school policy of randomly drug testing students who participate in competitive, non-athletic extracurricular activities. In reversing a federal court ruling, the 5-4 Court stated in its majority opinion that it found such a policy “a reasonably effective means of addressing the school district’s legitimate concerns in preventing, deterring and detecting drug use.” In her dissent, Justice Ginsberg wrote that “the particular testing program upheld…is not reasonable, it is capricious, even perverse.”

National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989): The Supreme Court held that suspicionless drug testing of U.S. Customs Service employees applying for promotion to positions involving interdiction of illegal drugs or requiring them to carry firearms was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment given the extraordinary safety and national security hazards that attend the sensitive positions in question.

New Jersey v. T.L.O, 469 U.S. 325 (1985): In a landmark case affirming students’ rights in schools, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment prohibited unreasonable searches and seizures in public schools. The court constructed a two-part test in evaluating the legality of a search. According to the court, “First, one must consider whether the . . . action was justified at its inception; second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” Under TLO, a search is ordinarily justified at its start when educators have reasonable grounds for suspecting that a search will uncover evidence that a student has violated the law.

Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives’ Ass’n, 489 U.S. 602 (1989): The Supreme Court held that a suspicionless drug testing program designed to test railroad employees after they were involved in an accident was constitutional under the Fourth Amendment given such factors as the government’s compelling interest in regulating the conduct of railroad employees who were engaged in safety-sensitive tasks and capable of causing “great human loss before any signs of impairment become noticeable to supervisors or others.”

Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969): In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The case involved students who were suspended for going to school wearing black arm bands to protest the war in Vietnam. The court stated that students retained their constitutional rights within the school as long as their actions did not represent a disruption of educational activities. Indeed, the court declared that “state-sponsored schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism.”

United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543 (1976): In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that permanent vehicle checkpoints did not constitute a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. The court reasoned that individualized suspicion was not necessary in this case because of the impracticality of identifying particular cars, the lower expectation of privacy of those in a car, and the need for routine searches at checkpoints to provide a proper deterrent to smuggling. The decision noted that although “some quantum of individualized suspicion is generally required,” this is not absolutely necessary.

Vernonia School District v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995): Applying Skinner and Von Raab, a divided Supreme Court upheld as constitutional a school district policy which required students to consent to random drug testing as a condition for participation in interscholastic athletics. Balancing the student’s expectations of privacy and the nature of the test’s intrusion against the government’s interest in drug-free schools, the Court held that the drug policy did not violate the Fourth Amendment given such factors as: the athletes’ relatively low expectation of privacy (e.g. due to the requirements of communal undress and preseason physical exams); the fact that the athletes were leaders in the school’s drug culture, which was “in a state of rebellion”; and that the tests were “directed more narrowly to drug use by athletes, where the risk of immediate physical harm to the drug user or those with whom he is playing his sport is particularly high.”


19 Solid Waste Dept. Mechanics, 156 F.3d 1068 (10th Cir. 1998): Affirming the lower court ruling, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the city policy requiring city employees to consent to a drug test before receiving a commercial driver’s license violated employees’ Fourth Amendment rights. The court decided that the testing scheme at issue, which did not rely on individualized suspicion, was unreasonable. Even though public safety and employee health were legitimate government interests, defendants had failed to demonstrate a special need for the particular testing scheme. That is, defendants failed to show that the program was well-designed to detect drug use among employees and that it had a deterrent effect. The court reasoned that the lack of reliance on individualized suspicion and the failure of the defendant to show that the testing program would be effective outweighed any legitimate government interest in public safety.

Brooks v. East Chambers Consol. Indep. Sch. Dist, 730 F. Supp. 759 (S.D. Tex. 1989), aff’d, 930 F. 2d 915 (5th Cir. 1991): The Fifth Circuit ruled unconstitutional the suspicionless drug testing of students wishing to participate in extracurricular activities. In its decision, the court concluded that the school’s justifications for its policy did not meet “the compelling need criteria necessary to undertake a search without reasonable suspicion.” The court additionally noted that drug testing was intrusive, that there was no evidence of drug problem or greater safety risk among those subject to the test, and that the policy was “not likely to accomplish its ostensible goals.”

Gardner v. Tulia Indep. Sch. Dist., No. 2, 2000 WL 3368 0258 (N.D. Tex. 2000): The Texas District Court ruled unconstitutional the school district’s policy mandating random suspicionless drug testing of all students in grades 7-12 who engaged in any extracurricular activities. The drug testing policy affected approximately 80 percent of the students. The court ruled that the policy violated students’ Fourth Amendments rights and that prior holdings were limited to random drug testing of student athletes only. Moreover, the court noted that there was no evidence of drug problem among students in general at Tulia schools, or among those in extracurricular activities.

Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290 (3d Cir. 2000): The Third Circuit reversed part of the district court’s decision and ruled that the actions of a swimming coach, who forced the appellant’s daughter to take a pregnancy test and discussed this incident with other students, faculty, and parents, represented an illegal search and an invasion of personal privacy under the Fourth Amendment. The court affirmed the lower court’s summary judgment in favor of the appellee with respect to familial right to privacy and free speech and association claims.

Joy v. Penn-Harris-Madison Sch. Corp., 212 F.3d 1052 (7th Cir. 2000): The Seventh Circuit upheld the school’s policy requiring students interested in participating in extracurricular activities and student drivers to undergo random drug testing. However, the court made clear in extensive discussion that it believed the drug testing policy violated the Fourth Amendment. It felt bound to uphold the policy only because of the prior Todd case on similar facts in the same court.

Linke v. Northwestern Sch. Corp., 734 N.E. 2d 252 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000): The Indiana court ruled unconstitutional suspicionless drug testing of athletes and students involved in certain extracurricular activities under the Indiana and U.S. constitutions. The court’s analysis centered on the idea that even if a standard of probable cause or individualized suspicion might be too strict when the needs of a school district are taken into account, a search by a school district must nevertheless meet a minimum standard of “reasonableness.” The court felt that in this case the school’s actions represented a shift towards randomly testing all students, which was unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional.

Miller v. Wilkes, 172 F.3d 574 (8th Cir. 1999), vacated, 1999 U.S. App. Lexis 13289 (June 15, 1999): In a decision that was later vacated, the Eight Circuit upheld the school district’s policy which required students participating in extracurricular activities to undergo suspicionless drug testing. Despite the fact that the school had presented no specific evidence of a drug problem, the court concluded that the school had an interest in generally discouraging drug use and that students participating in activities had a lower expectation of privacy that made these tests permissible.

Schaill v. Tippecanoe County Sch. Corp., 864 F. 2d 1309 (1988): In affirming the district court ruling, the Seventh Circuit concluded that probable cause and warrant requirements were inapplicable to school searches. The school in this case had instituted a drug screening program in which students wishing to participate in athletics agreed to urinalysis if chosen on a random basis. The court upheld the school’s policy because adequate safeguards were implemented to ensure reasonable expectations of privacy and selection of test subjects was not subject to discretion.

Tannahill v. Lockney Indep. Sch. Dist., 133 F. Supp. 2d 919 (N.D. Tex. 2001): In a case affecting all students in a Texas high school, the Texas District Court held unconstitutional the school’s drug testing policy. Although the school argued that there was a special need for this policy, the court concluded that the school failed to sufficiently demonstrate the need for suspicionless testing while also failing to create a program specifically targeted to solve “a drug crisis” – the standard set by Vernonia. Additionally, the court recognized the increased expectation of privacy for non-athlete students.

Theodore v. Del. Valley Sch. Dist, 761 A. 2d 652, 660 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2000): The Pennsylvania court ruled unconstitutional a school policy requiring participants in extracurricular activities and student drivers to undergo drug testing. The court disagreed “with the view that just by exercising a privilege in any activity that is part of the educational process, a student’s privacy interests are lessened and that a school district can, without more, condition participation in that activity on agreeing to testing just because the activities are optional.”

Todd v. Rush County Schools, 133 F.3d 984 (7th Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 8248 (1998): In one of the first cases to test the limits of Vernonia, the Seventh Circuit held constitutional a program prohibiting high school students from participating in purely extracurricular activities unless that student consented to random drug testing conducted by urinalysis. The court claimed that extracurricular activities “require healthy students,” and that participation in extracurricular activities is a “privilege in which students have voluntarily chosen to participate.”

Trinidad School District No. 1 v. Lopez, 963 P.2d 1095 (Col. 1998): Another case applying Vernonia involved a student who was suspended from the high school marching band for his refusal to submit to a suspicionless drug test. The school district’s policy applied to students participating in non-athletic activities, some of which were tied to for-credit, graded classes. Applying the balancing test used by the Supreme Court in Vernonia, the Supreme Court of Colorado held that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment given that (1) high school marching band members had a higher privacy expectation than student athletes (due to the fact that they did not undergo the type of public undressing and communal showers required of student athletes, and membership in the band was tied to enrollment in for-credit, graded music classes); and (2) the over-inclusive testing program was not an efficacious means of dealing with the district’s drug problem.

United Teachers of New Orleans v. Orleans Parish Sch. Bd., 142 F.3d 853 (5th Cir. 1998): The Fifth Circuit ruled unconstitutional the school board’s drug testing policy requiring employees injured in the course of employment to submit a urine specimen because adequate individualized suspicion of wrongful drug use did not exist. The court found that the rules were under inclusive because only persons injured in the course of employment were tested. They also were over inclusive because all persons injured were tested, not just persons injured under circumstances suggesting their fault. Thus, there was an insufficient nexus between suffering an injury at work and drug impairment. Additionally, the school did not show that the rules were responsive to an identified problem of drug use by employees.

Willis v. Anderson Comm. Sch. Corp, 158 F.3d 415 (7th Cir. 1998): The Seventh Circuit held unconstitutional a policy of drug testing any student who was suspended or violated specific rules. In this case, a student was threatened with expulsion when he refused to take a drug test demanded by the school district after his suspension for fighting. The court ruled that fighting did not represent a cause for reasonable suspicion of substance abuse and that proper justification was not provided by the school district to warrant the elimination of reasonable suspicion as a prerequisite for a drug test.