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Law School Case Brief

Nat'l Treasury Emps. Union v. Von Raab - 489 U.S. 656, 109 S. Ct. 1384 (1989)


While a search must be supported, as a general matter, by a warrant issued upon probable cause, neither a warrant nor probable cause, nor, indeed, any measure of individualized suspicion, is an indispensable component of reasonableness in every circumstance. Where a Fourth Amendment intrusion serves special governmental needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, it is necessary to balance the individual's privacy expectations against the government's interests to determine whether it is impractical to require a warrant or some level of individualized suspicion in the particular context.


The United States Customs Service, which has as its primary enforcement mission the interdiction and seizure of illegal drugs smuggled into the country, has implemented a drug-screening program requiring urinalysis tests of Service employees seeking transfer or promotion to positions having a direct involvement in drug interdiction or requiring the incumbent to carry firearms or to handle "classified" material. Among other things, the program required that an applicant be notified that his selection was contingent upon successful completion of drug screening. Petitioners, a federal employees' union and one of its officials, filed suit on behalf of Service employees seeking covered positions, alleging that the drug-testing program violated, inter alia, the Fourth Amendment. The District Court agreed and enjoined the program. The Court of Appeals vacated the injunction, holding that, although the program effects a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, such searches were reasonable in light of their limited scope and the Service's strong interest in detecting drug use among employees in covered positions.


  1. Did the program effect a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment?
  2. Were the searches reasonable?


1) Yes. 2) Yes.


According to the Court, where the government required its employees to produce urine samples to be analyzed for evidence of illegal drug use, the collection and subsequent chemical analysis of such samples were searches that must meet the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The Court held that the Service’s testing of employees who apply for promotion to positions directly involving the interdiction of illegal drugs, or to positions that require the incumbent to carry firearms, was reasonable despite the absence of a requirement of probable cause or of some level of individualized suspicion. The Court averred that the government's compelling interest in ensuring that employees directly involved in drug interdiction or required to carry firearms were physically fit and had unimpeachable integrity and judgment outweighed the employees' privacy interests. However, since the Court could not determine whether the category of employees who handled classified materials was properly defined, it vacated the judgment to the extent it upheld the testing of employees who handles classified materials and remanded for further consistent proceedings.

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