A county’s interest in the safety of the people at a juvenile detention center outweighed an employee’s privacy interests making random drug testing reasonable, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held recently. Washington v. Unified Gov. of Wyandotte County (10th Cir. 2017).
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. When a government employer requires employees to undergo drug testing, the test is subject to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, and therefore, must be reasonable. The easiest way for an employer to satisfy the Fourth Amendment is to base the test on individualized suspicion. However, when a “special need” arises, suspicionless tests can be reasonable if the government’s interests outweigh the individual’s privacy interests.
In 2012, as part of his employer’s random drug testing program, Roberick Washington tested positive for cocaine and was terminated. After unsuccessfully appealing his termination, Washington sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas, where he lost.
On appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court evaluated whether a legitimate special need existed to justify the suspicionless test. It analyzed two factors: 1) Whether the testing program was adopted in response to a documented drug-abuse problem, or whether drug abuse among the target group would pose a serious danger to the public; and 2) whether the testing scheme would effectively detect and deter drug use.
The court found that those undergoing random drug testing at the facility were directly responsible for the well being of juvenile residents, many of whom had struggled with substance abuse. This finding satisfied the first inquiry. The court found that the second inquiry was satisfied by the random nature of the test itself, which minimized the possibility of evading detection.
Satisfied that a special need existed, the court next balanced the county’s interests with Washington’s and determined that the county’s interests outweighed Washington’s privacy interests.
In reaching this decision, the court found two facts particularly convincing. First, Washington had an in loco parentis custodial and educational relationship with at-risk minors, which heightened the potential harm that could be caused by his use of illicit drugs. Secondly, in light of his law-enforcement duties, Washington’s illegal drug use could present a significant threat to the safety of those in the facility, should he be impaired at work. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s holding on Washington’s Fourth Amendment claims, acknowledging that its holding was limited in scope and might not apply to all employees in a correctional facility.
This is an important case for the Tenth Circuit, which comprises Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Members with questions relating to drug policies and testing are encouraged to contact MSEC.