March 21 -- Strengthening constitutional protections against unreasonable searches, the Supreme Court ruled today that hospitals cannot test pregnant women for drugswithout their consent and turn the results over to police.
In a 6-3 ruling, the court said drug testing by a public hospital in Charleston, S.C., violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution — which bars unreasonable search and seizure — even though the hospital wastrying to prevent women from harming their fetuses by using crack cocaine.
Under the Constitution, if women don't agree to the tests, a warrant is necessary, the court ruled. The justices asked a lower court to determine whether the patients actually consented to the tests.
Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens said: "While the ultimate goal of the program may well have been to get the women in question into substance abuse treatment and off ofdrugs, the immediate objective of the searches was to generateevidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach thatgoal."
When hospitals gather evidence of possible illegal activity from their patients, "they have a special obligation to make sure that the patients are fully informed about their constitutional rights," Stevens said.
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 concluding the drug tests were unconstitutional.
Women Arrested in the Hospital
At issue in the case was a policy at the Medical University of South Carolina, under which some women were arrested in their hospital beds after testing positive for illegal drugs and jailed under the state's child-endangerment law.
In the fall of 1989, MUSC began testing the urine of pregnant women suspected of cocaine use and, in some cases, reporting the results to law enforcement officials. Later, the policy was amended so those patients who tested positive were given a choice between being arrested and receiving drug treatment.