489 U.S. 656 (1989), 86-1879, National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab

Docket Nº:No. 86-1879
Citation:489 U.S. 656, 109 S.Ct. 1384, 103 L.Ed.2d 685
Party Name:National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab
Case Date:March 21, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court

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489 U.S. 656 (1989)

109 S.Ct. 1384, 103 L.Ed.2d 685

National Treasury Employees Union


Von Raab

No. 86-1879

United States Supreme Court

March 21, 1989

Argued November 2, 1988




The United States Customs Service, which has as its primary enforcement mission the interdiction and seizure of illegal drugs smuggled into the country, has implemented a drug-screening program requiring urinalysis tests of Service employees seeking transfer or promotion to positions having a direct involvement in drug interdiction or requiring the incumbent to carry firearms or to handle "classified" material. Among other things, the program requires that an applicant be notified that his selection is contingent upon successful completion of drug screening, sets forth procedures for collection and analysis of the requisite samples and procedures designed both to ensure against adulteration or substitution of specimens and to limit the intrusion on employee privacy, and provides that test results may not be turned over to any other agency, including criminal prosecutors, without the employee's written consent. Petitioners, a federal employees' union and one of its officials, filed suit on behalf of Service employees seeking covered positions, alleging that the drug testing program violated, inter alia, the Fourth Amendment. The District Court agreed, and enjoined the program. The Court of Appeals vacated the injunction, [109 S.Ct. 1386] holding that, although the program effects a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, such searches are reasonable in light of their limited scope and the Service's strong interest in detecting drug use among employees in covered positions.


1. Where the Government requires its employees to produce urine samples to be analyzed for evidence of illegal drug use, the collection and subsequent chemical analysis of such samples are searches that must meet the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Cf. Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn., ante at 616-618. However, because the Service's testing program is not designed to serve the ordinary needs of law enforcement -- i.e., test results may not be used in a criminal prosecution without the employee's consent, and the purposes of the program are to deter drug use among those eligible for promotion to sensitive positions and to prevent the promotion of drug users to those positions -- the public interest in the program must be balanced against

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the individual's privacy concerns implicated by the tests to determine whether a warrant, probable cause, or some level of individualized suspicion is required in this particular context. Railway Labor Executives, ante at 619-620. Pp. 665-666

2. A warrant is not required by the balance of privacy and governmental interests in the context of this case. Such a requirement would serve only to divert valuable agency resources from the Service's primary mission, which would be compromised if warrants were necessary in connection with routine, yet sensitive, employment decisions. Furthermore, a warrant would provide little or no additional protection of personal privacy, since the Service's program defines narrowly and specifically the circumstances justifying testing and the permissible limits of such intrusions; affected employees know that they must be tested, are aware of the testing procedures that the Service must follow, and are not subject to the discretion of officials in the field; and there are no special facts for a neutral magistrate to evaluate, in that implementation of the testing process becomes automatic when an employee pursues a covered position. Pp. 666-667

3. The Service's testing of employees who apply for promotion to positions directly involving the interdiction of illegal drugs, or to positions that require the incumbent to carry firearms, is reasonable despite the absence of a requirement of probable cause or of some level of individualized suspicion. Pp. 667-677.

(a) In light of evidence demonstrating that there is a national crisis in law enforcement caused by the smuggling of illicit narcotics, the Government has a compelling interest in ensuring that front-line interdiction personnel are physically fit and have unimpeachable integrity and judgment. It also has a compelling interest in preventing the risk to the life of the citizenry posed by the potential use of deadly force by persons suffering from impaired perception and judgment. These governmental interests outweigh the privacy interests of those seeking promotion to such positions, who have a diminished expectation of privacy in respect to the intrusions occasioned by a urine test by virtue of the special, and obvious, physical and ethical demands of the positions. Pp. 668-672.

(b) Petitioners' contention that the testing program is unreasonable because it is not based on a belief that testing will reveal any drug use by covered employees evinces an unduly narrow view of the context in which the program was implemented. Although it was not motivated by any perceived drug problem among Service employees, the program is nevertheless justified by the extraordinary safety and national security hazards that would attend the promotion of drug users to the sensitive positions in question. Moreover, the mere circumstance that all but a few of the [109 S.Ct. 1387] employees tested are innocent does not impugn the program's

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validity, since it is designed to prevent the substantial harm that could be caused by the promotion of drug users as much as it is designed to detect actual drug use. Pp. 673-675.

(c) Also unpersuasive is petitioners' contention that the program is not a sufficiently productive mechanism to justify its intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests because illegal drug users can easily avoid detection by temporary abstinence or by surreptitious adulteration of their urine specimens. Addicts may be unable to abstain even for a limited period or may be unaware of the "fade-away effect" of certain drugs. More importantly, since a particular employee's pattern of elimination for a given drug cannot be predicted with perfect accuracy, and may extend for as long as 22 days, and since this information is not likely to be known or available to the employee in any event, he cannot reasonably expect to deceive the test by abstaining after the test date is assigned. Nor can he expect attempts at adulteration to succeed, in view of the precautions built into the program to ensure the integrity of each sample. Pp. 676-677.

4. The record is inadequate for the purpose of determining whether the Service's testing of those who apply for promotion to positions where they would handle "classified" information is reasonable, since it is not clear whether persons occupying particular positions apparently subject to such testing are likely to gain access to sensitive information. On remand, the Court of Appeals should examine the criteria used by the Service in determining what materials are classified and in deciding whom to test under this rubric and should, in assessing the reasonableness of requiring tests of those employees, consider pertinent information bearing upon their privacy expectations and the supervision to which they are already subject. Pp. 677-678.

816 F.2d 170, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 679. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 680.

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KENNEDY, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether it violates the Fourth Amendment for the United States Customs Service to require a urinalysis test from employees who seek transfer or promotion to certain positions.



The United States Customs Service, a bureau of the Department of the Treasury, is the federal agency responsible for processing persons, carriers, cargo, and mail into the United States, collecting revenue from imports, and enforcing customs and related laws. See United States Customs Service, Customs U.S.A. Fiscal Year 1985, p. 4. An important responsibility of the Service is the interdiction and

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seizure of contraband, including illegal drugs. Ibid. In 1987 alone, Customs agents seized drugs with a retail value of nearly $9 billion. See United States Customs Service, Customs U.S.A. Fiscal Year 1987, p. 40. In the routine discharge of their duties, many Customs employees have direct contact with those who traffic in drugs for profit. Drug import operations, often directed by sophisticated criminal syndicates, United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 561-562 (1980) (Powell, J., concurring), may be effected by violence or its threat. As a necessary response, many Customs operatives carry [109 S.Ct. 1388] and use firearms in connection with their official duties. App. 109.

In December, 1985, respondent, the Commissioner of Customs, established a Drug Screening Task Force to explore the possibility of implementing a drug screening program within the Service. Id. at 11. After extensive research and consultation with experts in the field, the task force concluded "that drug screening through urinalysis is technologically reliable, valid and accurate." Ibid. Citing this conclusion, the Commissioner announced his intention to require drug tests of employees who applied for, or occupied, certain positions within the Service. Id. at 10-11. The Commissioner stated his belief that "Customs is largely drug-free," but noted also that "unfortunately, no segment of society is immune from the threat of illegal drug use." Id. at 10. Drug...

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