WASHINGTON (AP) - Public hospitals cannot test pregnant women for drugs and
turn the results over to police without consent, the Supreme Court said
Wednesday in a ruling that buttressed the Constitution's protection against
unreasonable searches.
Some women who tested positive for drugs at a South Carolina public hospital
were arrested from their beds shortly after giving birth.

The justices ruled 6-3 that such testing without patients' consent violates
the Constitution even though the goal was to prevent women from harming
their fetuses by using crack cocaine.

``It's a very, very important decision in protecting the right to privacy of
all Americans,'' said Priscilla Smith, lawyer for the Center for
Reproductive Law and Policy, who represented the South Carolina women. ``It
reaffirms that pregnant women have that same right to a confidential
relationship with their doctors.''

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court that while the ultimate goal
of the hospital's testing program may have been to get women into drug
treatment, ``the immediate objective of the searches was to generate
evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach that goal.''

When hospitals gather evidence ``for the specific purpose of incriminating
those patients, they have a special obligation to make sure that the
patients are fully informed about their constitutional rights,'' Stevens
said.

South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon, who as a local prosecutor in
Charleston began the testing program, issued a statement saying the program
can continue if police get a search warrant or the patient's consent.
``There is no right of a mother to jeopardize the health and safety of an
unborn child through her own drug abuse,'' Condon wrote.

Condon developed the policy along with officials at the Medical University
of South Carolina, a Charleston hospital that treats indigent patients. The
women were arrested under the state's child-endangerment law, but their
lawyers contended the policy was counterproductive and would deter women
from seeking prenatal care.

Stevens' opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David H.
Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Justice Anthony M.
Kennedy filed a separate opinion also concluding such tests are unlawful.

Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin
Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Writing for the three, Scalia said doctors are
supposed to have patients' welfare in mind, and ``that they have in mind in
addition the provision of evidence to the police should make no
difference.''

The justices ordered a lower court to consider the Charleston hospital's
argument that the women actually consented to the tests.

The Constitution's Fourth Amendment generally requires that searches be
authorized by a court warrant or based on reasonable suspicion that a crime
has been committed.

The Supreme Court has allowed drug testing without a warrant or individual
suspicion when the government can demonstrate a ``special need'' - for
example, preventing drug use by public high school students or by railroad
workers. However, the results in such cases would not be turned over to
police.

``The invasion of privacy in this case is far more substantial than in those
cases,'' Stevens wrote, noting that patients normally expect medical test
results to be kept private.

The decision reversed a federal appeals court ruling that said the South
Carolina hospital's drug-testing policy was a valid effort to reduce crack
cocaine use by pregnant women.

The hospital began the drug testing in 1989 during the crack cocaine
epidemic. If a woman's urine test indicated cocaine use, she was arrested
for distributing the drug to a minor. In 1990 the hospital gave drug-using
maternity patients a choice between arrest or enrolling for drug treatment.

Ten women sued the hospital in 1993, saying the policy violated the
Constitution. The hospital dropped the policy the following year, but by
then police had arrested 30 women.

The Supreme Court ruling was one of several recent decisions that have
buttressed the protection against unreasonable searches. Last year the
justices said police cannot set up random roadblocks to hunt for illegal
drugs, and that police must get travelers' consent or a court warrant before
squeezing their luggage to see if drugs might be inside.

But in February, the justices ruled that police who believe drug suspects
will destroy evidence can keep them from entering their homes until police
get a search warrant.

Wednesday's case is Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 99-936.


Date: Thu, 22 Mar 2001 05:52:56 -0000
From: "Diane R. Fornbacher" <siamgemini@hotmail.com>
To: restore@crrh.org
Subject: DC: Court Nixes Hospital Drug Tests
Message-ID: <F57gJKVApwOLZCHusMj0000f466@hotmail.com>