532 U.S. 67 (2001), 99-936, Ferguson v. Charleston

Docket Nº:Case No. 99-936
Citation:532 U.S. 67, 121 S.Ct. 1281, 149 L.Ed.2d 205, 69 U.S.L.W. 4184
Party Name:FERGUSON et al. v. CITY OF CHARLESTON et al.
Case Date:March 21, 2001
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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532 U.S. 67 (2001)

121 S.Ct. 1281, 149 L.Ed.2d 205, 69 U.S.L.W. 4184

FERGUSON et al.

v.

CITY OF CHARLESTON et al.

Case No. 99-936

United States Supreme Court

March 21, 2001

Argued October 4, 2000

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In the fall of 1988, staff members at the Charleston public hospital operated by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) became concerned about an apparent increase in the use of cocaine by patients who were receiving prenatal treatment. When the incidence of cocaine use among maternity patients remained unchanged despite referrals for counseling and treatment of patients who tested positive for that drug, MUSC staff offered to cooperate with the city in prosecuting mothers whose children tested positive for drugs at birth. Accordingly, a task force made up of MUSC representatives, police, and local officials developed a policy which set forth procedures for identifying and testing pregnant patients suspected of drug use; required that a chain of custody be followed when obtaining and testing patients' urine samples; provided for education and treatment referral for patients testing positive; contained police procedures and criteria for arresting patients who tested positive; and prescribed prosecutions for drug offenses and/or child neglect, depending on the stage of the defendant's pregnancy. Other than the provisions describing the substance abuse treatment to be offered women testing positive, the policy made no mention of any change in the prenatal care of such patients, nor did it prescribe any special treatment for the newborns. Petitioners, MUSC obstetrical patients arrested after testing positive for cocaine, filed this suit challenging the policy's validity on, inter alia, the theory that warrantless and nonconsensual drug tests conducted for criminal investigatory purposes were unconstitutional searches. Among its actions, the District Court instructed the jury to find for petitioners unless they had consented to such searches. The jury found for respondents, and petitioners appealed, arguing that the evidence was not sufficient to support the jury's consent finding. In affirming without reaching the consent question, the Fourth Circuit held that the searches in question were reasonable as a matter of law under this Court's cases recognizing that "special needs" may, in certain exceptional circumstances, justify a search policy designed to serve non-law-enforcement ends.

Held:

A state hospital's performance of a diagnostic test to obtain evidence of a patient's criminal conduct for law enforcement purposes is an unreasonable search if the patient has not consented to the procedure.

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The interest in using the threat of criminal sanctions to deter pregnant women from using cocaine cannot justify a departure from the general rule that an official nonconsensual search is unconstitutional if not authorized by a valid warrant. Pp. 76-86.

(a) Because MUSC is a state hospital, its staff members are government actors subject to the Fourth Amendment's strictures. New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325, 335-337. Moreover, the urine tests at issue were indisputably searches within that Amendment's meaning. Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn., 489 U.S. 602, 617. Furthermore, both lower courts viewed the case as one involving MUSC's right to conduct searches without warrants or probable cause, and this Court must assume for purposes of decision that the tests were performed without the patients' informed consent. Pp. 76-77.

(b) Because the hospital seeks to justify its authority to conduct drug tests and to turn the results over to police without the patients' knowledge or consent, this case differs from the four previous cases in which the Court considered whether comparable drug tests fit within the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless searches. See Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305, 309; see also Skinner, Treasury Employees v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656, and Vernonia School Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646. Those cases employed a balancing test weighing the intrusion on the individual's privacy interest against the "special needs" that supported the program. The invasion of privacy here is far more substantial than in those cases. In previous cases, there was no misunderstanding about the purpose of the test or the potential use of the test results, and there were protections against the dissemination of the results to third parties. Moreover, those cases involved disqualification from eligibility for particular benefits, not the unauthorized dissemination of test results. The critical difference, however, lies in the nature of the "special need" asserted. In each of the prior cases, the "special need" was one divorced from the State's general law enforcement interest. Here, the policy's central and indispensable feature from its inception was the use of law enforcement to coerce patients into substance abuse treatment. Respondents' assertion that their ultimate purpose—namely, protecting the health of both mother and child—is a beneficent one is unavailing. While the ultimate goal of the program may well have been to get the women in question into substance abuse treatment and off drugs, the immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach that goal. Given that purpose and given the extensive involvement of law enforcement officials at every stage of the policy, this case simply does not fit within the closely guarded category of "special needs." The fact that positive test results were turned over to the

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police does not merely provide a basis for distinguishing prior "special needs" cases. It also provides an affirmative reason for enforcing the Fourth Amendment's strictures. While state hospital employees, like other citizens, may have a duty to provide the police with evidence of criminal conduct that they inadvertently acquire in the course of routine treatment, when they undertake to obtain such evidence from their patients 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, as standards of knowing waiver require. Cf. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436. Pp. 77-86.

186 F.3d 469, reversed and remanded.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which O'Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 86. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Thomas, J., joined as to Part II, post, p. 91.

Priscilla J. Smith argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the briefs were Simon Heller, Lynn Paltrow, Susan Frietsche, David S. Cohen, Susan Dunn, David Rudovsky, and Seth Kreimer.

Robert H. Hood argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Barbara Wynne Showers and Mary Agnes Hood Craig. [*]

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we must decide whether a state hospital's performance of a diagnostic test to obtain evidence of a patient's criminal conduct for law enforcement purposes is an

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unreasonable search if the patient has not consented to the procedure. More narrowly, the question is whether the interest in using the threat of criminal sanctions to deter pregnant women from using cocaine can justify a departure from the general rule that an official nonconsensual search is unconstitutional if not authorized by a valid warrant.

I

In the fall of 1988, staff members at the public hospital operated in the city of Charleston by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) became concerned about an apparent increase in the use of cocaine by patients who were receiving prenatal treatment.[1] In response to this perceived increase, as of April 1989, MUSC began to order drug screens to be performed on urine samples from maternity patients who were suspected of using cocaine. If a patient tested positive, she was then referred by MUSC staff to the county substance abuse commission for counseling and treatment. However, despite the referrals, the incidence of cocaine use among the patients at MUSC did not appear to change.

Some four months later, Nurse Shirley Brown, the case manager for the MUSC obstetrics department, heard a news broadcast reporting that the police in Greenville, South Carolina, were arresting pregnant users of cocaine on the theory that such use harmed the fetus and was therefore child abuse.[2] Nurse Brown discussed the story with MUSC's general counsel, Joseph C. Good, Jr., who then contacted

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Charleston Solicitor Charles Condon in order to offer MUSC's cooperation in prosecuting mothers whose children tested positive for drugs at birth.[3]

After receiving Good's letter, Solicitor Condon took the first steps in developing the policy at issue in this case. He organized the initial meetings, decided who would participate, and issued the invitations, in which he described his plan to prosecute women who tested positive for cocaine while pregnant. The task force that Condon formed included representatives of MUSC, the police, the County Substance Abuse Commission and the Department of Social Services. Their deliberations led to MUSC's adoption of a 12-page document entitled "POLICY M-7," dealing with the subject of "Management of Drug Abuse During Pregnancy." App. to Pet. for Cert. A-53.

The first three pages of Policy M-7 set forth the procedure to be followed by the hospital staff to "identify/assist pregnant patients suspected of drug abuse." Id., at A-53 to A-56. The first section, entitled the...

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