Vernonia School District v. Acton: Reasonable Random Drug Searches (06/26/1995)

Vernonia School District v. Acton

Does random drug testing of high school athletes violate the reasonable search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment?

Argued: 03/28/1995

Decision Date: 06/26/1995

Decision Record: 6-3; no

Justices in Favor: John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter

Justices Dissenting: William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer

Effect of the Decision

This case ruled that the random drug tests at the high school did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In Favor

In the favoring side of this case, on the side of the Vernonia School District, attorney Timothy R. Voleprt argued, “The issue presented is whether a school district faced with a serious drug problem with student athletes at its core may reasonably require athletes to submit to drug testing absent individualized suspicion.

The hard evidence of drug use consists, Justice Souter, of observations on numerous occasions by a teacher of students smoking marijuana across the street, arrests of student athletes for using drugs, confiscation of drug paraphernalia on school grounds, admissions by students to the principal that they have used drugs, admissions by certain student athletes to the coaches that they had used drugs, coaches’ observations of marijuana coming from the room of athletes the day after a serious injury–“


In the opposition, on the side of the city of Acton, attorney Richard H. Seamon argued, “I’d like to begin by addressing a question that arose earlier.

The question was, if there was so much evidence of drug use in Vernonia, why wasn’t there enough individualized suspicion to make individualized suspicion-based testing effective?

That question is plainly relevant under the balancing approach this Court applied in Skinner and Von Raab, because even though the Court declined to impose a least intrusive means requirement in its analysis, it is plain that alternatives to suspicionless testing are relevant to decide whether suspicionless testing is actually necessary to further the governmental interest that is being asserted, and I think that the limitations of individualized suspicion testing are illustrated well on the facts of this case.

Some of the evidence concerned drug use by individual students, and would have permitted individualized suspicion-based testing of those students… for example, the students from whom drug paraphernalia was confiscated, the students who were seen smoking marijuana in the coffee shop across the street from the school, the students who were arrested for using intoxicants at a party during the school day.

But this was not the only relevant evidence in the record that there was a drug problem in Vernonia.

The school district witnessed a two to threefold increase in disciplinary problems over the course of a couple of years.

At the same time, it witnessed the rise of an apparent drug culture.

Students boasting about their use of drugs, whether true or false, was certainly relevant to the officials’ assessment of whether a drug problem existed, and finally, the organization of groups with names like The Drug Cartel.

Now, maybe the fact that a student belongs to a group called The Drug Cartel does not provide individualized reasonable suspicion for testing that individual.

That would be a debatable point.

But the fact that such a group springs into existence at the same time that there is a two to threefold increase in disciplinary problems, and teachers for the first time begin hearing students boasting about drug use and writing about it in essays that they hand in to be graded clearly is relevant in assessing the existence of a drug problem.”


On the side of the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion for the court. He wrote, “Taking into account all the factors we have considered above–the decreased expectation of privacy, the relative unobtrusiveness of the search, and the severity of the need met by the search–we conclude Vernonia’s Policy is reasonable and hence constitutional.

We caution against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing will readily pass constitutional muster in other contexts. The most significant element in this case is the first we discussed: that the Policy was undertaken in furtherance of the government’s responsibilities, under a public school system, as guardian and tutor of children entrusted to its care. [n.4] Just as when the government conducts a search in its capacity as employer (a warrantless search of an absent employee’s desk to obtain an urgently needed file, for example), the relevant question is whether that intrusion upon privacy is one that a reasonable employer might engage in, see O’Connor v. Ortega480 U.S. 709(1987); so also when the government acts as guardian and tutor the relevant question is whether the search is one that a reasonable guardian and tutor might undertake. Given the findings of need made by the District Court, we conclude that in the present case it is.

We may note that the primary guardians of Vernonia’s schoolchildren appear to agree. The record shows no objection to this districtwide program by any parents other than the couple before us here–even though, as we have described, a public meeting was held to obtain parents’ views. We find insufficient basis to contradict the judgment of Vernonia’s parents, its school board, and the District Court, as to what was reasonably in the interest of these children under the circumstances.”

Then in dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “On this record, then, it seems to me that the far more reasonable choice would have been to focus on the class of students found to have violated published school rules against severe disruption in class and around campus, see Record, Exh. 2, at 9, 11–disruption that had a strong nexus to drug use, as the District established at trial. Such a choice would share two of the virtues of a suspicion based regime: testing dramatically fewer students, tens as against hundreds, and giving students control, through their behavior, over the likelihood that they would be tested. Moreover, there would be a reduced concern for the accusatory nature of the search, because the Court’s feared “badge of shame,” ante, at 17, would already exist, due to the antecedent accusation and finding of severe disruption. In a lesser known aspect of Skinner, we upheld an analogous testing scheme with little hesitation. See Skinner, 489 U. S., at 611 (describing ” `Authorization to Test for Cause’ ” scheme, according to which train operators would be tested “in the event of certain specific rule violations, including noncompliance with a signal and excessive speeding”).

It cannot be too often stated that the greatest threats to our constitutional freedoms come in times of crisis. But we must also stay mindful that not all government responses to such times are hysterical overreactions; some crises are quite real, and when they are, they serve precisely as the compelling state interest that we have said may justify a measured intrusion on constitutional rights. The only way for judges to mediate these conflicting impulses is to do what they should do anyway: stay close to the record in each case that appears before them, and make their judgments based on that alone. Having reviewed the record here, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the District’s suspicionless policy of testing all student athletes sweeps too broadly, and too imprecisely, to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority decision. The random drug searches did not violate the reasonable suspicion clause of the Fourth Amendment. The random drug searches were due to the official drug investigation. They discovered drugs and that’s enough suspicion for the authorities and police to perform random drug searches.

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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