Law School Case Brief
Skinner v. Ry. Labor Executives' Ass'n - 489 U.S. 602, 109 S. Ct. 1402 (1989)
The Fourth Amendment does not proscribe all searches and seizures, but only those that are unreasonable. What is reasonable, of course, depends on all of the circumstances surrounding the search or seizure and the nature of the search or seizure itself. Thus, the permissibility of a particular practice is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), based upon evidence indicating that alcohol and drug abuse by railroad employees posed a serious threat to public safety, promulgated regulations addressing that problem. Some railway employees' unions sought to enjoin, on various statutory and constitutional grounds, (1) Subpart C of the regulations (49 CFR §§ 219.201 et seq.), which required railroads to assure that certain railroad employees directly involved in certain train accidents resulting in deaths, injuries, or property damages provide blood and urine samples for testing by the FRA for the presence of alcohol and drugs, and (2) Subpart D of the regulations (49 CFR §§ 219.301 et seq.), which authorized, but did not require, railroads to require certain railroad employees to submit to (a) a breath or urine test when a supervisor had a "reasonable suspicion" that an employee's acts or omissions contributed to a reportable accident or incident, or when an employee violated certain specific rules, or (b) a breath test when a supervisor, based upon specific, personal observations of an employee, had a "reasonable suspicion" that the employee was under the influence of alcohol. The United States District Court for the Northern District of California, holding that the railroad employees had a valid interest in the integrity of their own bodies that deserved protection under the Fourth Amendment, but that the governmental interest in promoting safety for railroad employees and for the general public under the regulations outweighed the employees' interest, granted summary judgment in favor of the Secretary of Transportation, under whose statutory authority the regulations had been adopted. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, reversing the District Court's judgment, held that (1) the tests authorized by Subpart D involved sufficient government action to implicate the Fourth Amendment, (2) the breath, blood, and urine tests contemplated by the regulations were Fourth Amendment searches, (3) the exigencies of testing for the presence of alcohol and drugs in blood, urine, or breath required prompt action that precluded obtaining a warrant before performing the testing procedures, (4) because the accommodation of the railroad employees' privacy interest with the significant safety concerns of the government did not require a probable cause requirement for the performance of the testing procedures, the legality of the searches contemplated by the regulations depended on their reasonableness under all the circumstances, (5) particularized suspicion was essential to a finding that toxicological testing of railroad employees was reasonable, and (6) because the regulations, with certain exceptions, did not require a showing of individualized suspicion, the regulations were invalid.
Did FRA's promulgation of regulations 49 C.F.R. § 219.101- 219.301(c)(2) (1987), under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (Act), 45 U.S.C.S. § 431(a), violate the U.S. Const. amend. IV rights of employees covered by the Hours of Service Act, 45 U.S.C.S. § 61 et seq.?
The Supreme Court reversed a judgment that found petitioner FRA's promulgation of regulations 49 C.F.R. §§ 219.101- 219.301(c)(2) (1987), under the Act, violated the U.S. Const. amend. IV rights of employees covered by the Hours of Service Act, 45 U.S.C.S. §§ 61 et seq. The court found the alcohol and drug tests under Subparts C and D of petitioner's regulations were reasonable within the meaning of U.S. Const. amend. IV and no warrants or reasonable suspicion were required before any testing. The court held that railroad employers had limited discretion under the regulations and there was a strong governmental interest to regulate railroad employees' conduct to ensure public safety. The tests were not considered intrusive because there was a diminished expectation of privacy on the information relating to the physical condition of covered employees and to reasonable means of procuring the information because the industry was highly regulated for safety. The court found that most railroads required periodic physical exams for certain employees.
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