Ferguson v. City of Charleston
Decided Mar. 21, 2001, 532 U.S. 67


Public hospital testing of pregnant women, without their consent, for cocaine use and reporting the results to police officials
is an unconstitutional search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

 

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
 I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed:
Warrantless searches

B. Legal Question Presented:

Is a state hospital's performance of a diagnostic test to obtain evidence of a patient's criminal conduct for law enforcement puposes an unreasonable search if the patient has not consented to the procedure, and does the interest in using the threat of criminal sanctions to deter pregnant women from using cocaine justify a departure from the general rule that an official nonconsensual search is unconstitutional if not authorized by a valid warrant?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"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."

On certiorari, the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
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.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Julie E. Sternberg, Steven R. Shapiro, Sara L. Mandelbaum, Catherine Weiss, Louise Melling, Louis M. Bograd, Martha F. Davis, Yolanda S. Wu, and Roslyn Powell; for the American Medical Association by Michael Ile, Anne Murphy, and Leonard Nelson; for the American Public Health Association et al. by Daniel N. Abrahamson and David T. Goldberg; for the NARAL Foundation et al. by Nancy L. Perkins and Jodi Michael; for the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform et al. by Carolyn A. Kubitschek; and for the Rutherford Institute by John W. Whitehead and Steven H. Aden.

Unavailable

IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

The Supreme Court held that:

"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. 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.

Because MUSC is a state hospital, its staff members are government actors subject to the Fourth Amendment's strictures. Moreover, the urine tests at issue were indisputably searches within that Amendment's meaning. 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...

[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 benificent 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 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."

The US Supreme Court reversed the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit judgment.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; the Supreme Court reversed in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.