SKINNER V. RAILWAY LAB. EXECS. ASS'N, 489 U. S. 602 (1989)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Skinner v. Railway Lab. Execs. Ass'n, 489 U.S. 602 (1989)

Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Association

No. 87-1555

Argued November 2, 1988

Decided March 21, 1989

489 U.S. 602


Upon the basis of evidence indicating that alcohol and drug abuse by railroad employees had caused or contributed to a number of significant train accidents, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) promulgated regulations under petitioner Secretary of Transportation's statutory authority to adopt safety standards for the industry. Among other things, Subpart C of the regulations requires railroads to see that blood and urine tests of covered employees are conducted following certain major train accidents or incidents, while Subpart D authorizes, but does not require, railroads to administer breath or urine tests, or both, to covered employees who violate certain safety rules. Respondents, the Railway Labor Executives' Association and various of its member labor organizations, brought suit in the Federal District Court to enjoin the regulations. The court granted summary judgment for petitioners, concluding that the regulations did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling, inter alia, that a requirement of particularized suspicion is essential to a finding that toxicological testing of railroad employees is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court stated that such a requirement would ensure that the tests, which reveal the presence of drug metabolites that may remain in the body for weeks following ingestion, are confined to the detection of current impairment.


1. The Fourth Amendment is applicable to the drug and alcohol testing mandated or authorized by the FRA regulations. Pp. 489 U. S. 613-618.

(a) The tests in question cannot be viewed as private action outside the reach of the Fourth Amendment. A railroad that complies with Subpart C does so by compulsion of sovereign authority, and therefore must be viewed as an instrument or agent of the Government. Similarly, even though Subpart D does not compel railroads to test, it cannot be concluded, in the context of this facial challenge, that such testing will be primarily the result of private initiative, since specific features of the regulations combine to establish that the Government has actively encouraged, endorsed, and participated in the testing. Specifically, since

Page 489 U. S. 603

the regulations preempt state laws covering the same subject matter, and are intended to supersede collective bargaining and arbitration award provisions, the Government has removed all legal barriers to the testing authorized by Subpart D. Moreover, by conferring upon the FRA the right to receive biological samples and test results procured by railroads, Subpart D makes plain a strong preference for testing and a governmental desire to share the fruits of such intrusions. In addition, the regulations mandate that railroads not bargain away their Subpart D testing authority, and provide that an employee who refuses to submit to such tests must be withdrawn from covered service. Pp. 489 U. S. 614-616.

(b) The collection and subsequent analysis of the biological samples required or authorized by the regulations constitute searches of the person subject to the Fourth Amendment. This Court has long recognized that a compelled intrusion into the body for blood to be tested for alcohol content, and the ensuing chemical analysis, constitute searches. Similarly, subjecting a person to the breath test authorized by Subpart D must be deemed a search, since it requires the production of "deep lung" breath, and thereby implicates concerns about bodily integrity. Moreover, although the collection and testing of urine under the regulations do not entail any intrusion into the body, they nevertheless constitute searches, since they intrude upon expectations of privacy as to medical information and the act of urination that society has long recognized as reasonable. Even if the employer's antecedent interference with the employee's freedom of movement cannot be characterized as an independent Fourth Amendment seizure, any limitation on that freedom that is necessary to obtain the samples contemplated by the regulations must be considered in assessing the intrusiveness of the searches affected by the testing program. Pp. 489 U. S. 616-618.

2. The drug and alcohol tests mandated or authorized by the FRA regulations are reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, even though there is no requirement of a warrant or a reasonable suspicion that any particular employee may be impaired, since, on the present record, the compelling governmental interests served by the regulations outweigh employees' privacy concerns. Pp. 489 U. S. 618-633.

(a) The Government's interest in regulating the conduct of railroad employees engaged in safety-sensitive tasks in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public and of the employees themselves plainly justifies prohibiting such employees from using alcohol or drugs while on duty or on call for duty and the exercise of supervision to assure that the restrictions are in fact observed. That interest presents "special needs" beyond normal law enforcement that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable cause requirements. Pp. 489 U. S. 618-621.

Page 489 U. S. 604

(b) Imposing a warrant requirement in the present context is not essential to render the intrusions at issue reasonable. Such a requirement would do little to further the purposes of a warrant, since both the circumstances justifying toxicological testing and the permissible limits of such intrusions are narrowly and specifically defined by the regulations, and doubtless are well known to covered employees, and since there are virtually no facts for a neutral magistrate to evaluate, in light of the standardized nature of the tests and the minimal discretion vested in those charged with administering the program. Moreover, imposing a warrant requirement would significantly hinder, and in many cases frustrate, the objectives of the testing program, since the delay necessary to procure a warrant could result in the destruction of valuable evidence, in that alcohol and drugs are eliminated from the bloodstream at a constant rate, and since the railroad supervisors who set the testing process in motion have little familiarity with the intricacies of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Pp. 489 U. S. 621-624.

(c) Imposing an individualized suspicion requirement in the present context is not essential to render the intrusions at issue reasonable. The testing procedures contemplated by the regulations pose only limited threats to covered employees' justifiable privacy expectations, particularly since they participate in an industry subject to pervasive safety regulation by the Federal and State Governments. Moreover, because employees ordinarily consent to significant employer-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement, any additional interference with that freedom that occurs in the time it takes to procure a sample from a railroad employee is minimal. Furthermore, Schmerber v. California, 384 U. S. 757, established that governmentally imposed blood tests do not constitute an unduly extensive imposition on an individual's privacy and bodily integrity, and the breath tests authorized by Subpart D are even less intrusive than blood tests. And, although urine tests require employees to perform an excretory function traditionally shielded by great privacy, the regulations reduce the intrusiveness of the collection process by requiring that samples be furnished in a medical environment, without direct observation. In contrast, the governmental interest in testing without a showing of individualized suspicion is compelling. A substance-impaired railroad employee in a safety-sensitive job can cause great human loss before any signs of the impairment become noticeable, and the regulations supply an effective means of deterring such employees from using drugs or alcohol by putting them on notice that they are likely to be discovered if an accident occurs. An individualized suspicion requirement would also impede railroads' ability to obtain valuable information about the causes of accidents or incidents and how to protect the public, since obtaining evidence giving rise to the suspicion

Page 489 U. S. 605

that a particular employee is impaired is impracticable in the chaotic aftermath of an accident, when it is difficult to determine which employees contributed to the occurrence and objective indicia of impairment are absent. The Court of Appeals' conclusion that the regulations are unreasonable because the tests in question cannot measure current impairment is flawed. Even if urine test results disclosed nothing more specific than the recent use of controlled substances, this information would provide the basis for a further investigation, and might allow the FRA to reach an informed judgment as to how the particular accident occurred. More importantly, the court overlooked the FRA's policy of placing principal reliance on blood tests, which unquestionably can identify recent drug use, and failed to recognize that the regulations are designed not only to discern impairment, but to deter it. Pp. 489 U. S. 624-632.

839 F.2d 575, reversed.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and WHITE, BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined, and in all but portions of Part III of which STEVENS, J., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 489 U. S. 634. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 489 U. S. 635

Page 489 U. S. 606

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