Mandatory Drug Testing Upheld

Federal appeals court permits a Missouri technical college to monitor all students, not just those in selected programs.

December 18, 2015

A federal appeals court -- lifting a lower court's injunction -- found that the State Technical College of Missouri may make drug testing mandatory for all students.

The decision is the latest step in a long court battle over whether testing the entire student body violates the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches. When the college, at the time called Linn State Technical College, began to require drug testing of all students, the move attracted nationwide attention, as did the injunction blocking the policy. While this 2-1 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit does apply to all the college's students, the rationale offered suggests that most colleges couldn't rely on this decision to force drug testing on everyone.

“We’re very, very excited about this decision,” said Donald Claycomb, president of the two-year technical college. “We believe the safety of students outweighs the constitutional concerns. … We’re not trying to set any kind of national precedent, but just to do what’s best for our students in the environment they’re being educated in.”

The college is small -- serving about 1,200 students -- and operates roughly 30 programs that are highly technical and sometimes involve dangerous lab or fieldwork. The decision, for example, references the aviation maintenance program, in which “students work in close proximity to active propeller blades” and the heavy equipment operations program, which involves operating bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

The ruling, written by Judge Clarence Beam, finds that “Linn State's student population … are primarily engaged in safety-sensitive and potentially dangerous curriculum due to the unique nature of this particular vocational and technical college and its limited focus.” Therefore, Judge Beam writes, “testing the entire student population entering Linn State is reasonable and hence constitutional and an effective means of addressing Linn State's interest in providing ‘a safe, healthy and productive environment for everyone who learns and works at LSTC by detecting, preventing and deterring drug use and abuse among students.’”

“The majority’s decision is surprising,” said Tony Rothert, legal director for Missouri’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. And “disappointing” because, he said, it rejects Supreme Court precedent requiring drug tests be applied narrowly in specific situations.

“Saying ‘some students at the college engage in activities that are dangerous, so then you can test all of them’ is like saying, ‘well, some students at a high school play football, so you can test all of them,’” Rothert said.

What’s more, Rothert said, the previous court, whose injunction this one reversed, found only five of the college’s programs to be dangerous enough to require drug testing, whereas others, such as business administration or computer application development, clearly don’t meet that standard. “In the vast majority of programs, there was no evidence of students engaging in dangerous activities,” he said.

Judge Beam did dispute some of the distinctions the previous court made between programs, however, pointing out that the commercial turf and grounds management programs required students use “forklifts, large commercial mowers, flammable materials, propane torches and concrete saws,” but still hadn’t met the danger standards of the previous court.

In a dissent, Judge Kermit Bye raises another issue. Pointing to the majority reasoning that these safety concerns are immediate because of a “massive [drug] problem in today's society,” Bye wrote, “I find the majority's fear-ridden rationale to be troubling.” The only evidence cited for this massive drug problem, he argued, is a 2007 Supreme Court case that lists statistics of drug use among secondary school students.

“While I certainly acknowledge drug and alcohol abuse are very serious problems,” Bye wrote, “the majority's reference … does not explain why there is a real and immediate risk present at Linn State today.”

The ACLU will file a request for an en banc hearing of the case, Rothert said, which means the case would go before the entire Eighth Circuit rather than a panel of just three judges. And if that’s denied, he said, the ACLU will consider petitioning the Supreme Court.

“The silver lining is it’ll be hard to apply this decision anywhere else,” Rothert said, because this college’s curriculum is uniquely specialized, so the decision’s scope is narrow. “But it’s still disappointing.”


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