Student Victory in the Courts Against Suspicionless Drug Testing

Student Victory in the Courts Against Suspicionless Drug Testing

Linn State Plaintiffs Triumph in Latest Ruling

Students for Sensible Drug Policy has long advocated against student drug testing, an invasive and counterproductive practice that is disfavored by numerous professional associations.  In December, SSDP secured a major victory for the Constitution when the Eighth Circuit ruled that suspicionless drug testing of college students is unconstitutional.

In 2011, SSDP members at Linn State Technical College in Linn, Missouri objected to a new policy that required all entering students to submit to urine testing.  In coordination with the ACLU, these students brought a class-action lawsuit against Linn State.  For over five years, the case worked its way through the federal courts.  Now, in Kittle-Aikeley v. Strong, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit en banc (from the entire bench) has answered decisively: the blanket drug testing program as piloted by Linn State violates the Fourth Amendment.*

(*Linn State is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court is not expected to hear the case.)

As a legal matter, student drug testing challenges the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches.  As far back as 1985, the U.S Supreme Court has held that these protections apply, even to students in K-12 public schools.  Mandatory collection of blood or urine for drug testing is a classic example of a “search” triggering Fourth Amendment protection.

The Linn State case is unique because it addresses college students.  Most case law permitting student drug testing has involved high school and middle school students.  Kittle-Aikeley makes the important distinction between college and secondary schools, noting that what may be permissible in secondary schools is not necessarily appropriate for colleges.  Even still, most courts considering drug testing in secondary schools have limited the practice to students participating in athletics and intramurals.

(The ACLU has complied a helpful summary of case law related to student drug testing on their website.)

The decision reemphasizes the classic Fourth Amendment requirement of individualized suspicion.  Linn State is a technical college, so it offers hands-on industrial programs.  Linn State argued that, because its campus has industrial machinery, all students should be deemed at risk of endangering safety.  The court didn’t buy this interpretation, noting that while safety is a legitimate exception to the Fourth Amendment, Linn State should only be allowed to test students who are actually enrolled in a potentially dangerous program.

Finally, the Eighth Circuit rejected Linn State’s argument that “maintaining a drug-free school environment” was a legitimate justification to simply force all entering students to provide urine samples.

(For further analysis of the ruling and its implications, see my commentary over at JURIST.org.)

SSDP’s Tradition of Legal Advocacy

When Linn State students like Sam Walker ’11 learned about Linn State’s unprecedented new drug testing policy, they turned to SSDP for help.  The Linn State chapter of SSDP served as a forum for outraged students to publicize and discuss the policy.

Meanwhile, students like Brandon Kittle-Aikeley reached out to the ACLU for legal representation.  The ACLU of Missouri and the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project took the case, filing a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.

Taking a strong interest in the case, the SSDP Foundation filed an amicus curiae brief with the court.  An amicus curiae brief (or just “amicus brief”), meaning “friend of the court,” is a tool for advocacy organizations with expertise to educate the court on an issue. In other words, SSDP Foundation was able to advocate in the courts directly by taking a legal position on the case and explaining the importance of the issue for students.

The Linn State case is not the first time that SSDP has filed an amicus brief in high-profile constitutional litigation.  In the watershed free speech case Morse v. Frederick (2007) (colloquially, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case), SSDP Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of students’ rights to advocate for drug policy reform.  While student Joseph Frederick ultimately lost in the U.S. Supreme Court, that ruling focused on his seemingly promoting illegal drug use, as opposed to simply advocating for policy reform.

Many lawyers, law students, and others in the SSDP family have contributed to SSDP’s courtroom advocacy over the years.  A central figure in both of the cases discussed above was Alex Kreit, currently a Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.  His leadership was instrumental in SSDP’s amicus advocacy.  Law students and lawyers on past Boards of Directors have also contributed to these efforts.

Most of SSDP’s legal advocacy, of course, happens outside the courtroom.  This includes all of the lobbying, research, writing, and education that so many SSDPers have engaged in around the world on a near-constant basis.  Pushing back against unreasonable drug testing is just one of SSDP’s many core issues that will likely require further advocacy for years to come.

Current law students can get involved by starting or joining a chapter of Law Students for Sensible Drug Policy (LSSDP).