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Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association


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489 U.S. 602 (1989), argued 2 Nov. 1988, decided 21 Mar. 1989 by vote of 7 to 2; Kennedy for the Court, Stevens concurring in the judgment, Marshall and Brennan in dissent. At issue in this case, decided along with National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab (1989), was the constitutionality of the drug testing of railroad employees. The case began when the Federal Railroad Administration promulgated regulations requiring blood and urine tests of railroad employees involved in certain major train accidents or incidents and permitting breath or urine tests where employees violated certain safety rules. Railroad labor unions challenged the regulations, arguing that they violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Supreme Court held that although the covered workers were employed by private companies, the level of government involvement was such, and the program was intrusive enough, to implicate the Fourth Amendment. As to whether the program was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the Court pointed to the surrounding circumstances. Focusing on the loss of life and property in train accidents, the Court held that the government's interest in ensuring safety presented a special need that made the program reasonable. Further, finding that the employees’ expectations of privacy were minimal and that there was little discretion involved, and again stressing the safety aspect, the Court held that the usual Fourth Amendment requirements of a warrant, probable cause, and suspicion of individual wrongdoing were unnecessary.

Dissenting, Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan warned that the Court had allowed basic constitutional protections to wither because of hysteria over drugs. They found the Court's special needs approach unprincipled and dangerous, with a resulting cavalier disregard for the constitutional text. Yet the majority of the Court in Veronica School District v. Acton (1995) held that testing student athletes for drug use was reasonable, leaving open the possibility that all of the student body might be subject to such tests.

Gerald N. Rosenberg

Subjects: Law.


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