Going too far in the war on drugs? Supreme Court: Georgia case tests limits of state's right to conduct reasonable searches.

February 02, 1997

IF A CANDIDATE for political office flunked a drug test, voters would likely take a dim view of his suitability for office. But do voters care more about drug test results or basic constitutional rights? Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Georgia case in which three candidates for office challenged a state law that requires candidates to take a urine test and certify that it did not show the presence of illegal drugs.

The plaintiffs argued that the law violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches, and questions from the justices suggested that they are inclined to agree. If that holds true, the court may be preparing to set limits on searches undertaken without reasonable cause for suspicion.

Currently, the government has broad authority to search people in certain circumstances -- if they are boarding airplanes or entering the United States or working in highly regulated industries. In addition, the court has carved out some other conditions in which searches can be undertaken without suspicion of wrongdoing.

One of those cases, decided last year, challenged a school district's policy of requiring all students on athletic teams to undergo physical examinations that included a urine test for illegal drugs, and to submit to random drug testing during the athletic season. The court approved those tests on the grounds that students in school can generally expect less privacy, that students were tested only if they volunteered for sports activities and that the loss of privacy involved in administering the tests was not significantly different from the general loss of privacy in locker rooms.

Even so, three judges dissented, arguing that the school district should have to cite some reason for suspicion before imposing the tests. From the skeptical tone of their questions, it seems likely that a majority of justices will agree that the Georgia law goes too far. As Justice John Paul Stevens said, "If you rely on the public's right to know everything about a candidate, it seems to me you can justify a search of a whole house for private papers."

Fighting drug abuse is an important national priority. But the Georgia law, passed more for its symbolic value than with the intent of actually catching offenders, comes at the expense of basic constitutional liberties. That's a war we don't need.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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