Brief Fact Summary. Alcohol and drug use on the American Railroads caused officials to promulgate various regulations.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. “[A] warrant is [not] essential to render the intrusions here at issue reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
“[T]the alcohol and drug tests contemplated by Subparts C and D of the [Federal Railroad Administration’s] regulations are reasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”
Issue. Whether regulations promulgated by the FRA that ‘mandate blood and urine tests of employees who are involved in certain train accidents’ and ‘do not require, but do authorize, railroads to administer breath and urine tests to employees who violate certain safety rules violate the Fourth Amendment[?]’ ”
Held. “[T]he 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.’ ” “In most criminal cases, [the Supreme Court] strike[s] this balance in favor of the procedures described by the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment. Except in certain well-defined circumstances, a search or seizure in such a case is not reasonable unless it is accomplished pursuant to a judicial warrant issued upon probable cause. [The court has] recognized exceptions to this rule, however, ‘when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable.’ ” “When faced with such special needs, we have not hesitated to balance the governmental and privacy interests to assess the practicality of the warrant and probable-cause requirements in the particular context.’ ”
“The Government’s interest in regulating the conduct of railroad employees to ensure safety, like its supervision of probationers or regulated industries, or its operation of a government office, school, or prison, ‘likewise presents special needs beyond normal law enforcement that may justify departures from the usual warrant and probable-cause requirements.’ The hours of service employees covered by the FRA regulations include persons engaged in handling orders concerning train movements, operating crews, and those engaged in the maintenance and repair of signal systems. It is undisputed that these and other covered employees are engaged in safety-sensitive tasks. The FRA so found, and respondents conceded the point at oral argument. As we have recognized, the whole premise of the Hours of Service Act is that ‘[t]he length of hours of service has direct relation to the efficiency of the human agencies upon which protection [of] life and property necessarily depends.’ ”
“The FRA has prescribed toxicological tests, not to assist in the prosecution of employees, but rather ‘to prevent accidents and casualties in railroad operations that result from impairment of employees by alcohol or drugs.’ This governmental interest in ensuring the safety of the traveling public and of the employees themselves plainly justifies prohibiting covered employees from using alcohol or drugs on duty, or while subject to being called for duty. This interest also ‘require[s] and justif[ies] the exercise of supervision to assure that the restrictions are in fact observed.’ ” “Both the circumstances justifying toxicological testing and the permissible limits of such intrusions are defined narrowly and specifically in the regulations that authorize them, and doubtless are well known to covered employees. Indeed, in light of the standardized nature of the tests and the minimal discretion vested in those charged with administering the program, there are virtually no facts fo
r a neutral magistrate to evaluate.”
Further, “[the Court has] recognized, moreover, that the government’s interest in dispensing with the warrant requirement is at its strongest when, as here, ‘the burden of obtaining a warrant is likely to frustrate the governmental purpose behind the search.’ As the FRA recognized, alcohol and other drugs are eliminated from the bloodstream at a constant rate, and blood and breath samples taken to measure whether these substances were in the bloodstream when a triggering event occurred must be obtained as soon as possible. Although the metabolites of some drugs remain in the urine for longer periods of time and may enable the FRA to estimate whether the employee was impaired by those drugs at the time of a covered accident, incident, or rule violation, the delay necessary to procure a warrant nevertheless may result in the destruction of valuable evidence.” Moreover, “[t]he Government’s need to rely on private railroads to set the testing process in motion also indicates that insis
tence on a warrant requirement would impede the achievement of the Government’s objective. Railroad supervisors, like school officials, and hospital administrators, are not in the business of investigating violations of the criminal laws or enforcing administrative codes, and otherwise have little occasion to become familiar with the intricacies of this Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. ‘Imposing unwieldy warrant procedures . . . upon supervisors, who would otherwise have no reason to be familiar with such procedures, is simply unreasonable.’ ”
“In sum, imposing a warrant requirement in the present context would add little to the assurances of certainty and regularity already afforded by the regulations, while significantly hindering, and in many cases frustrating, the objectives of the Government’s testing program.”
“[T]he testing procedures contemplated by Subparts C and D pose only limited threats to the justifiable expectations of privacy of covered employees. By contrast, the Government interest in testing without a showing of individualized suspicion is compelling.”
“Negative test results would likewise furnish invaluable clues, for eliminating drug impairment as a potential cause or contributing factor would help establish the significance of equipment failure, inadequate training, or other potential causes, and suggest a more thorough examination of these alternatives. Tests performed following the rule violations specified in Subpart D likewise can provide valuable information respecting the causes of those transgressions, which the FRA found to involve ‘the potential for a serious train accident or grave personal injury, or both.’ ” “A requirement of particularized suspicion of drug or alcohol use would seriously impede an employer’s ability to obtain this information, despite its obvious importance.”
Moreover the majority concluded “that the compelling Government interests served by the FRA’s regulations would be significantly hindered if railroads were required to point to specific facts giving rise to a reasonable suspicion of impairment before testing a given employee. In view of our conclusion that, on the present record, the toxicological testing contemplated by the regulations is not an undue infringement on the justifiable expectations of privacy of covered employees, the Government’s compelling interests outweigh privacy concerns.” To that end, “[t]he Government may take all necessary and reasonable regulatory steps to prevent or deter that hazardous conduct, and since the gravamen of the evil is performing certain functions while concealing the substance in the body, it may be necessary, as in the case before us, to examine the body or its fluids to accomplish the regulatory purpose.”
“Alcohol and drug tests conducted in reliance on the authority of Subpart D cannot be viewed as private action outside the reach of the Fourth Amendment. Because the testing procedures mandated or authorized by Subparts C and D effect searches of the person, they must meet the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness requirement. In light of the limited discretion exercised by the railroad employers under the regulations, the surpassing safety interests served by toxicological tests in this context, and the diminished expectation of privacy that attaches to information pertaining to the fitness of covered employees, we believe that it is reasonable to conduct such tests in the absence of a warrant or reasonable suspicion that any particular employee may be impaired.”
Discussion. This case offers an interesting application of the Fourth Amendment to the railroads and how its requirements can be relaxed.