Ferguson v. City of Charleston

RESPONDENT:City of Charleston
LOCATION:Medical University of South Carolina

DOCKET NO.: 99-936
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 532 US 67 (2001)
ARGUED: Oct 04, 2000
DECIDED: Mar 21, 2001

Priscilla J. Smith – Argued the cause for the petitioners
Robert H. Hood – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

After an increase in the use of cocaine by patients receiving prenatal care, the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) started to cooperate with Charleston to formulate a policy to prosecute mothers whose children tested positive for drugs at birth. MUSC obstetrical patients were arrested after testing positive for cocaine. They filed suit challenging the policy’s validity on the theory that warrantless and nonconsensual drug tests conducted for criminal investigatory purposes were unconstitutional searches. Among the District Court’s actions was an instruction to the jury to find for the patients unless they had consented to such searches. The jury found in favor of the city. In affirming, the Court of Appeals held that the searches were reasonable, reasoning that special needs may, in certain exceptional circumstances, justify a search policy designed to serve non-law-enforcement ends.


Is a state hospital’s performance of a diagnostic test to obtain evidence of a patient’s criminal conduct for law enforcement purposes an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment if the patient has not consented to the procedure?

Media for Ferguson v. City of Charleston

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 04, 2000 in Ferguson v. City of Charleston

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 21, 2001 in Ferguson v. City of Charleston

The opinion of the Court in No. 99-936, Ferguson against the City of Charleston will be announced by Justice Stevens.

John Paul Stevens:

This case comes to us from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

It raises the question, whether the interest in using the threat of criminal sanctions to deter a pregnant woman from using cocaine can justify a departure from the Fourth Amendment’s general prohibition against warantless and suspicionless searches?

A task force made up of local police officials and members of the staff of a public hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, developed a policy for identifying and testing pregnant patients suspected of drug use.

Those who tested positive were either arrested or threatened with arrest to induce them to undergo a treatment for drug abuse.

Petitioners are former obstetrical patients who were arrested after tested positive for cocaine.

They filed this suit challenging the policy’s validity on the theory that the drug tests were unconstitutional searches.

After a trial, the District Court instructed the jury that the test were unreasonable unless petitioners had consented to them.

The jury found such consent and petitioners appealed arguing that the evidence was not sufficient to support the jury’s finding.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, but it did not decide to consent question.

It held that even without consent the searches were reasonable as a matter of law, under this Court’s case’s recognizing the special needs may in exceptional circumstances, justify a search policy designed to serve non-law enforcement ends.

We granted certiorari, to review the Appellate Court’s holding on the “special needs” issue.

As the case comes to us, we view the issue as involving a public hospital’s right to conduct tests for the purpose obtaining evidence of a patient’s criminal conduct, without the patient’s informed consent.

Our “special needs” cases have involved special programs such as the testing of student athletes and have employed a balancing test weighing the intrusion of the search on the individual’s privacy interest against the special needs that support the program.

In each of the prior cases, the special need was one divorced from the state’s general law enforcement interest.

Here, however the central feature of the policy was the use of law enforcement to coerce patients in the substance abuse treatment.

While the ultimate purpose of the program was to protect the health of pregnant woman and their unborn children.

The immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes.

Given that purpose and the extensive involvement of law enforcement officials at every stage of the policy, the case does not fit within the category of special needs identified in our prior cases.

Accordingly for reasons stated more fully in an opinion filed with the Clerk of Court, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings.

Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion; the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas have joined part two of Justice Scalia’s dissent.