Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton

PETITIONER:Vernonia School District 47J
LOCATION: Vernonia High School

DOCKET NO.: 94-590
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 515 US 646 (1995)
ARGUED: Mar 28, 1995
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1995

Richard H. Seamon – On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Thomas M. Christ – Argued the cause for the respondent
Timothy R. Volpert – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

An official investigation led to the discovery that high school athletes in the Vernonia School District participated in illicit drug use. School officials were concerned that drug use increases the risk of sports-related injury. Consequently, the Vernonia School District of Oregon adopted the Student Athlete Drug Policy which authorizes random urinalysis drug testing of its student athletes. James Acton, a student, was denied participation in his school’s football program when he and his parents refused to consent to the testing.


Does random drug testing of high school athletes violate the reasonable search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment?

Media for Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 28, 1995 in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 26, 1995 in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in Vernonia School District versus Acton will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case, number 94-590 comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Ninth Circuit.

The petitioner is Vernonia School District 47J, which operates the public schools in the small logging town of Vernonia, Oregon.

In the late 1980s, the school district began experiencing a severe problem with drug use among its students.

Students began to speak out about their attraction to the drug culture and to boast that there was nothing that schools could do about it.

Along with more drugs came more disciplinary problems.

School officials discovered that student athletes were not only part of the drug culture but were indeed its leaders.

In Vernonia as in many other small towns in America, school sports play a prominent part in the community life and school athletes become role models.

Concerned that the athletes’ bad example was affecting the entire student body and also pushing to reduce the risk of sports related injuries that can offer if an athlete is impaired by drugs.

The district adopted the Student Athlete Drug Policy.

This requires that all students who participate in school athletics submit to your analysis drug testing at the beginning of the season for their sport and to random your analysis drug testing there and after.

Each week the names of 10% of the student athletes are drawn for testing.

The respondent James Acton who was then in the seventh grade was excluded from participation on his school’s football team because he and his parents refused to consent to the drug testing program.

They filed suit claiming that the policy violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution as well as the Oregon Constitution.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the policy violated both the Federal and State constitutions.

In an opinion filed today we hold that the policy does not violate the United States Constitution.

State compelled collection and testing of urine is of course a search, which must meet the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of reasonableness in order to be constitutional.

At least where there was no clear practice either approving or disapproving the type of search at issue at the time of the framing of constitution, the reasonableness of the search is judged by balancing the intrusion on an individual’s legitimate expectations of privacy against the government’s interest advanced by this search.

Applying this test we find that the district’s policy is reasonable.

The most important factor in our decision is that the subjects of this search are children who have been committed to the temporary custody of the State as schoolmaster.

In that capacity, the State may exercise a greater degree of supervision and control than it could exercise over three adults, because of this relationship children and public schools have a reduced expectation of privacy which is already compromised by requirements that student submit a certain physical examinations and receive vaccinations.

The legitimate privacy expectations of student athletes are even lesser.

Since an element of communal undress is inherent in athletic participation and athletes voluntarily subject themselves to greater regulation of their conduct than to students who choose not to participate.

Against this interest we weighed a severity of the intrusion caused by the policy.

We find that the privacy interest compromised by the process of obtaining the urine samples are negligible, since samples are collected under conditions nearly identical to those routinely encountered in public restrooms.

Furthermore, the test looks only for standard drugs not private medical conditions and the results of the test are released only to a limited group of school officials who have a need to know the information.

The nature and the immediacy of the government’s interest and the efficacy of this means for meeting it, also contribute to our conclusion that the policy is reasonable.

The importance of deterring drug use by public school children cannot be doubted.

The effects of drug use disrupt the education of children for whom the State has undertaken a special responsibility of care and direction.

Moreover, the Policy is directed only to student athletes, who suffer the increased risk that their drug use will cause them to injure themselves or other players during athletic competition.

Antonin Scalia:

It seems self-evident that a drug problem largely fueled by the role model effective athletes’ drug use and which causes particular danger to athletes is effectively addressed by ensuring that athletes do not use drugs.

We reject respondent’s argument that the program is unconstitutional because it is not based on individual suspicion of drug use.

The Fourth Amendment does not require that the least intrusive search to be conducted and in any event we do not believe that a program of individualized suspicion would truly be less intrusive.

Since it would risk arbitrary singling out of disfavored students for drug testing and would inject an element of adversariness into what is otherwise is a prophylactic and non-punitive drug testing program.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is vacated and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Ginsburg while joining the opinion of the court has also filed a separate concurrence.

Justice O’Connor has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens and Souter and have joined.