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Federal Appeals Court Says "No" To Missouri Technical College Drug Testing All Students

We've had several blog posts, including here, about ongoing litigation in Missouri over a suspicionless drug testing program for incoming students at a two-year public college (Linn State).  In December 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an en banc decision (i.e., a decision by the full court and not a three-judge panel), available here, in which it (thankfully) invalidated parts of this testing regime based on Fourth Amendment protections.

Under the challenged policy, all incoming students were required to submit to a drug test in the form of a urinalysis.  Linn State operates multiple vocational programs in which students face potential safety risks from working with machinery or live electricity, but it also offers programs in which students engage in academic studies that did not pose such concerns.  The drug testing policy in question applied to all incoming students no matter the program in which they enrolled. According to the opinion, the college president enacted the policy after a survey of members of the institution’s advisory council indicated their support for drug testing all incoming students.  The policy was not started in response to the identification of any kind of systematic problems involving drug or alcohol use by students.  Absent a waiver from the college, students who refused to participate in drug testing could not enroll.

A federal district court upheld the drug-testing requirement for students enrolled in certain programs that presented particular safety risks, but it held that suspicionless testing of other students constituted an impermissible search under the Fourth Amendment.  Reversing in part, a panel for the Eighth Circuit initially decided that the school could implement the drug testing program for all incoming students without regard to program enrollment.  Agreeing to review the case en banc, the full court determined that the policy could not be applied to students in programs that did not raise particularized safety risks.

In its opinion, the Eighth Circuit explained that while searches under the Fourth Amendment typically require individualized suspicion, the existence of “special needs,” such as safety considerations, may warrant the use of suspicionless drug testing.  Along with safety issues, the school argued that the testing policy satisfied the special needs requirement in seeking to achieve the overall benefits of a drug-free environment for members of the campus community.  It also contended that the policy helped prepare students for drug testing regimes common in workplace environments.  The court rejected these various arguments in relation to students enrolled in programs involving no heightened safety risks.  In disallowing the policy under such circumstances, the court discussed that the school had identified no crisis or seeming epidemic of drug use among students.  Looking to a case in which the Supreme Court analyzed the permissibility of suspicionless drug testing of federal employees on the basis of job duties, National Treasury Employees Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989), the Eighth Circuit stated that the districted court appropriately engaged in a program-by-program analysis and the exclusion from testing of students enrolled in programs not raising special safety concerns.

Hopefully this case will serve as a useful caution to other institutions that might be considering a similar ill-advised testing program as that struck down in this case.

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