Pottawatomie v. Earls (2002)

Summary

This month we spotlight the landmark student privacy case Pottawatomie v. Earls (2002). In this case, the Court was asked to decide the constitutionality of a public school’s policy of giving random drug tests to all students participating in extra-curricular activities. Did this program violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches?


Teacher Key

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Activity

High school student Lindsay Earls wanted to attend choir practice, but she didn’t think she should have to take a drug test to do so. Her high school had begun a policy of requiring all students who participated in extra-curricular activities to take random drug tests. No one had to suspect a student of drug use for the test to be required. Everyone in an extra-curricular activity was subject to them.

Earls believed this drug testing program violated the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches.” She believed a suspicion-less drug test was an unreasonable search. The school argued that preventing drug use among children was an important responsibility of the state. If a student did not want to take a drug test, he or she could choose not to be involved in any extracurricular activities. Earls’s case eventually went to the Supreme Court.
The Court agreed with the school and ruled that the random drug tests were constitutional. Though the Fourth Amendment requires “probable cause,” the Court has long held that school officials need only “reasonable suspicion” in order to conduct a search. In Pottawatomie v. Earls (2002), the Supreme Court held that even suspicion-less searches were allowed given the “special needs” of the school environment.

The Court reasoned, “Given the minimally intrusive nature of the [urine] sample collection and the limited uses to which the test results are put, we conclude that the invasion of students’ privacy is not significant… A student’s privacy interest is limited in a public school environment where the State is responsible for maintaining discipline, health, and safety.” The Court cited requirements including “communal undress” and “off-campus travel” often associated with extra-curricular activities, and concluded that these requirements result in less of an expectation of privacy by participating students.

Finally, the government’s interest in deterring drug use justified the program. “Given the nationwide epidemic of drug use, and the evidence of increased drug use in [this district], it was entirely reasonable for the School District to enact this particular drug testing policy.”

Comprehension and Critical Thinking Question

  1. Describe the drug-testing program in Pottawatomie v. Earls (2002).
  2. Why did Lindsay Earls believe the program was unconstitutional?
  3. How did the Court rule, and what was its reasoning?
  4. In her dissent Justice Ginsburg argued that the “program upheld today is not reasonable, it is capricious, even perverse: Petitioners’ policy targets for testing a student population least likely to be at risk from illicit drugs and their damaging effects.” Do you agree? Why or why not?