Thurgood Marshall's Prescient Warning: Don't Gut the 4th Amendment

His dissent in a 1989 case stated that "today's decision will reduce the privacy all citizens may enjoy." And so it has.

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Library of Congress

In a story on the secret body of law being created by the FISA court, The New York Times reports that "in one of the court's most important decisions, the judges have expanded the use in terrorism cases of a legal principle known as the 'special needs' doctrine and carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment's requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures, the officials said." A judicially created exception to the Fourth Amendment?! How did that happen, you might wonder.

The newspaper explains:

The special needs doctrine was originally established in 1989 by the Supreme Court in a ruling allowing the drug testing of railway workers, finding that a minimal intrusion on privacy was justified by the government's need to combat an overriding public danger. Applying that concept more broadly, the FISA judges have ruled that the N.S.A.'s collection and examination of Americans' communications data to track possible terrorists does not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment...

The article goes on to quote a legal expert who explains why the FISA court's expansion of the 1989 precedent is highly dubious (and not just because it was issued in secret, though that is also problematic). And the FISA court's interpretation is wrongheaded.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't anticipated by civil libertarians when that bygone case put us on the slippery slope we've tumbled down. It is thus the perfect time to return to Justice Thurgood Marshall's dissent in Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Association.

What follows is a condensed version.


The issue in this case is not whether declaring a war on illegal drugs is good public policy. The importance of ridding our society of such drugs is, by now, apparent to all. Rather, the issue here is whether the Government's deployment in that war of a particularly draconian weapon -- the compulsory collection and chemical testing of railroad workers' blood and urine -- comports with the Fourth Amendment. Precisely because the need for action against the drug scourge is manifest, the need for vigilance against unconstitutional excess is great. History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. The World War II relocation camp cases, and the Red scare and McCarthy-era internal subversion cases, are only the most extreme reminders that, when we allow fundamental freedoms to be sacrificed in the name of real or perceived exigency, we invariably come to regret it.

In permitting the Government to force entire railroad crews to submit to invasive blood and urine tests, even when it lacks any evidence of drug or alcohol use or other wrongdoing, the majority today joins those shortsighted courts which have allowed basic constitutional rights to fall prey to momentary emergencies. The majority holds that the need of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to deter and diagnose train accidents outweighs any "minimal" intrusions on personal dignity and privacy posed by mass toxicological testing of persons who have given no indication whatsoever of impairment. In reaching this result, the majority ignores the text and doctrinal history of the Fourth Amendment, which require that highly intrusive searches of this type be based on probable cause, not on the evanescent cost-benefit calculations of agencies or judges...

The majority purports to limit its decision to post-accident testing of workers in "safety-sensitive" jobs... But the damage done to the Fourth Amendment is not so easily cabined. The majority's acceptance of dragnet blood and urine testing ensures that the first, and worst, casualty of the war on drugs will be the precious liberties of our citizens. I therefore dissent.


The Court today takes its longest step yet toward reading the probable cause requirement out of the Fourth Amendment. For the fourth time in as many years, a majority holds that a "'special need, beyond the normal need for law enforcement,'" makes the "requirement" of probable cause "impracticable." With the recognition of "the Government's interest in regulating the conduct of railroad employees to ensure safety" as such a need, the Court has now permitted "special needs" to displace constitutional text in each of the four categories of searches enumerated in the Fourth Amendment: searches of "persons," "houses," "papers," and "effects."

The process by which a constitutional "requirement" can be dispensed with as "impracticable" is an elusive one to me. The Fourth Amendment provides that

the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The majority's recitation of the Amendment, remarkably, leaves off after the word "violated," but the remainder of the Amendment -- the Warrant Clause -- is not so easily excised. As this Court has long recognized, the Framers intended the provisions of that Clause -- a warrant and probable cause -- to "provide the yardstick against which official searches and seizures are to be measured." Without the content which those provisions give to the Fourth Amendment's overarching command that searches and seizures be "reasonable," the Amendment lies virtually devoid of meaning, subject to whatever content shifting judicial majorities, concerned about the problems of the day, choose to give to that supple term. Constitutional requirements like probable cause are not fair-weather friends, present when advantageous, conveniently absent when "special needs" make them seem not.

Until recently, an unbroken line of cases had recognized probable cause as an indispensable prerequisite for a full-scale search, regardless of whether such a search was conducted pursuant to a warrant or under one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. Only where the Government action in question had a "substantially less intrusive" impact on privacy, and thus clearly fell short of a full-scale search, did we relax the probable cause standard. Even in this class of cases, we almost always required the Government to show some individualized suspicion to justify the search...

In the four years since this Court first began recognizing "special needs" exceptions to the Fourth Amendment, the clarity of Fourth Amendment doctrine has been badly distorted, as the Court has eclipsed the probable cause requirement in a patchwork quilt of settings: public school principals' searches of students' belongings, public employers' searches of employees' desks; and probation officers' searches of probationers' homes. Tellingly, each time the Court has found that "special needs" counseled ignoring the literal requirements of the Fourth Amendment for such full-scale searches in favor of a formless and unguided "reasonableness" balancing inquiry, it has concluded that the search in question satisfied that test. I have joined dissenting opinions in each of these cases, protesting the "jettisoning of... the only standard that finds support in the text of the Fourth Amendment" and predicting that the majority's "Rohrschach-like 'balancing test'" portended "a dangerous weakening of the purpose of the Fourth Amendment to protect the privacy and security of our citizens."

The majority's decision today bears out that prophecy. After determining that the Fourth Amendment applies to the FRA's testing regime, the majority embarks on an extended inquiry into whether that regime is "reasonable," an inquiry in which it balances "all the circumstances surrounding the search or seizure and the nature of the search or seizure itself." The result is "special needs" balancing analysis' deepest incursion yet into the core protections of the Fourth Amendment.

Until today, it was conceivable that, when a Government search was aimed at a person and not simply the person's possessions, balancing analysis had no place. No longer: with nary a word of explanation or acknowledgment of the novelty of its approach, the majority extends the "special needs" framework to a regulation involving compulsory blood withdrawal and urinary excretion, and chemical testing of the bodily fluids collected through these procedures. And until today, it was conceivable that a prerequisite for surviving "special needs" analysis was the existence of individualized suspicion. No longer: ...the regulatory regime upheld today requires the post-accident collection and testing of the blood and urine of all covered employees -- even if every member of this group gives every indication of sobriety and attentiveness.

In widening the "special needs" exception to probable cause to authorize searches of the human body unsupported by any evidence of wrongdoing, the majority today completes the process of eliminating altogether the probable cause requirement for civil searches -- those undertaken for reasons "beyond the normal need for law enforcement." In its place, the majority substitutes a manipulable balancing inquiry under which, upon the mere assertion of a "special need," even the deepest dignitary and privacy interests become vulnerable to governmental incursion. By its terms, however, the Fourth Amendment -- unlike the Fifth and Sixth -- does not confine its protections to either criminal or civil actions. Instead, it protects generally "the right of the people to be secure."

The fact is that the malleable "special needs" balancing approach can be justified only on the basis of the policy results it allows the majority to reach. The majority's concern with the railroad safety problems caused by drug and alcohol abuse is laudable; its cavalier disregard for the text of the Constitution is not.

There is no drug exception to the Constitution, any more than there is a communism exception or an exception for other real or imagined sources of domestic unrest. Because abandoning the explicit protections of the Fourth Amendment seriously imperils "the right to be let alone -- the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men," I reject the majority's "special needs" rationale as unprincipled and dangerous.


...It is the probable cause requirement... that the FRA's testing regime most egregiously violates... By any measure, the FRA's highly intrusive collection and testing procedures qualify as full-scale personal searches. Under our precedents, a showing of probable cause is therefore clearly required.

But even if these searches were viewed as entailing only minimal intrusions on the order, say, of a police stop-and-frisk, the FRA's program would still fail to pass constitutional muster, for we have, without exception, demanded that even minimally intrusive searches of the person be founded on individualized suspicion. The federal parties concede it does not satisfy this standard. Only if one construes the FRA's collection and testing procedures as akin to the routinized and fleeting regulatory interactions which we have permitted in the absence of individualized suspicion might these procedures survive constitutional scrutiny. Presumably for this reason, the majority likens this case to United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, which upheld brief automobile stops at the border to ascertain the validity of motorists' residence in the United States. Case law and common sense reveal both the bankruptcy of this absurd analogy and the constitutional imperative of adhering to the textual standard of probable cause to evaluate the FRA's multifarious full-scale searches.

Compelling a person to submit to the piercing of his skin by a hypodermic needle so that his blood may be extracted significantly intrudes on the "personal privacy and dignity against unwarranted intrusion by the State" against which the Fourth Amendment protects. As we emphasized in Terry:

Even a limited search of the outer clothing . . . constitutes a severe, though brief, intrusion upon cherished personal security, and it must surely be an annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating experience.

...The government-compelled withdrawal of blood, involving as it does the added aspect of physical invasion, is surely no less an intrusion. The surrender of blood on demand is, furthermore, hardly a quotidian occurrence.

In recognition of the intrusiveness of this procedure, we specifically required in Schmerber that police have evidence of a drunk-driving suspect's impairment before forcing him to endure a blood test... Exactly why a blood test which, if conducted on one person, requires a showing of at least individualized suspicion may, if conducted on many persons, be based on no showing whatsoever, the majority does not -- and cannot -- explain.

...The majority's characterization of the privacy interests implicated by urine collection as "minimal," is nothing short of startling. This characterization is, furthermore, belied by the majority's own prior explanation of why compulsory urination constitutes a search for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment:

There are few activities in our society more personal or private than the passing of urine. Most people describe it by euphemisms, if they talk about it at all. It is a function traditionally performed without public observation; indeed, its performance in public is generally prohibited by law as well as social custom.

The fact that the majority can invoke this powerful passage in the context of deciding that a search has occurred, and then ignore it in deciding that the privacy interests this search implicates are "minimal," underscores the shameless manipulability of its balancing approach.
Finally, the chemical analysis the FRA performs upon the blood and urine samples implicates strong privacy interests apart from those intruded upon by the collection of bodily fluids. Technological advances have made it possible to uncover, through analysis of chemical compounds in these fluids, not only drug or alcohol use, but also medical disorders such as epilepsy, diabetes, and clinical depression. As the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has observed:

[S]uch tests may provide Government officials with a periscope through which they can peer into an individual's behavior in her private life, even in her own home.

...By any reading of our precedents, the intrusiveness of these three searches demands that they -- like other full-scale searches -- be justified by probable cause... Never have we intimated that regulatory searches reduce employees' rights of privacy in their persons... individuals do not lose Fourth Amendment rights at the workplace gate, any more than they relinquish these rights at the schoolhouse door, or the hotel room threshold. These rights mean little indeed if, having passed through these portals, an individual may remain subject to a suspicionless search of his person justified solely on the grounds that the Government already is permitted to conduct a search of the inanimate contents of the surrounding area. In holding that searches of persons may fall within the category of regulatory searches permitted in the absence of probable cause or even individualized suspicion, the majority sets a dangerous and ill-conceived precedent...

I recognize that invalidating the full-scale searches involved in the FRA's testing regime for failure to comport with the Fourth Amendment's command of probable cause may hinder the Government's attempts to make rail transit as safe as humanly possible. But constitutional rights have their consequences, and one is that efforts to maximize the public welfare, no matter how well-intentioned, must always be pursued within constitutional boundaries. Were the police freed from the constraints of the Fourth Amendment for just one day to seek out evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the resulting convictions and incarcerations would probably prevent thousands of fatalities. Our refusal to tolerate this spectre reflects our shared belief that even beneficent governmental power -- whether exercised to save money, save lives, or make the trains run on time -- must always yield to "a resolute loyalty to constitutional safeguards."

The Constitution demands no less loyalty here.


Even accepting the majority's view that the FRA's collection and testing program is appropriately analyzed under a multifactor balancing test, and not under the literal terms of the Fourth Amendment, I would still find the program invalid. The benefits of suspicionless blood and urine testing are far outstripped by the costs imposed on personal liberty by such sweeping searches. Only by erroneously deriding as "minimal" the privacy and dignity interests at stake, and by uncritically inflating the likely efficacy of the FRA's testing program, does the majority strike a different balance.

...The majority's trivialization of the intrusions on worker privacy posed by the FRA's testing program is matched at the other extreme by its blind acceptance of the Government's assertion that testing will "dete[r] employees engaged in safety-sensitive tasks from using controlled substances or alcohol," and "help railroads obtain invaluable information about the causes of major accidents." With respect, first, to deterrence, it is simply implausible that testing employees after major accidents occur will appreciably discourage them from using drugs or alcohol.

As JUSTICE STEVENS observes in his concurring opinion:

Most people -- and I would think most railroad employees as well -- do not go to work with the expectation that they may be involved in a major accident, particularly one causing such catastrophic results as loss of life or the release of hazardous material requiring an evacuation. Moreover, even if they are conscious of the possibilities that such an accident might occur and that alcohol or drug use might be a contributing factor, if the risk of serious personal injury does not deter their use of these substances, it seems highly unlikely that the additional threat of loss of employment would have any effect on their behavior.

Under the majority's deterrence rationale, people who skip school or work to spend a sunny day at the zoo will not taunt the lions because their truancy or absenteeism might be discovered in the event they are mauled. It is, of course, the fear of the accident, not the fear of a post-accident revelation, that deters. The majority's credulous acceptance of the FRA's deterrence rationale is made all the more suspect by the agency's failure to introduce, in an otherwise ample administrative record, any studies explaining or supporting its theory of accident deterrence.

The poverty of the majority's deterrence rationale leaves the Government's interest in diagnosing the causes of major accidents as the sole remaining justification for the FRA's testing program. I do not denigrate this interest, but it seems a slender thread from which to hang such an intrusive program, particularly given that the knowledge that one or more workers were impaired at the time of an accident falls far short of proving that substance abuse caused or exacerbated that accident. Some corroborative evidence is needed: witness or coworker accounts of a worker's misfeasance, or at least indications that the cause of the accident was within a worker's area of responsibility. Such particularized facts are, of course, the very essence of the individualized suspicion requirement which the respondent railroad workers urge, and which the Court of Appeals found to "pose no insuperable burden on the government." Furthermore, reliance on the importance of diagnosing the causes of an accident as a critical basis for upholding the FRA's testing plan is especially hard to square with our frequent admonition that the interest in ascertaining the causes of a criminal episode does not justify departure from the Fourth Amendment's requirements. "This Court has never sustained a search upon the sole ground that officers reasonably expected to find evidence of a particular crime..."

Nor should it here.


In his first dissenting opinion as a Member of this Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes observed:

Great cases, like hard cases, make bad law. For great cases are called great, not by reason of their real importance in shaping the law of the future, but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment. These immediate interests exercise a kind of hydraulic pressure which makes what previously was clear seem doubtful, and before which even well settled principles of law will bend.

A majority of this Court, swept away by society's obsession with stopping the scourge of illegal drugs, today succumbs to the popular pressures described by Justice Holmes. In upholding the FRA's plan for blood and urine testing, the majority bends time-honored and textually based principles of the Fourth Amendment -- principles the Framers of the Bill of Rights designed to ensure that the Government has a strong and individualized justification when it seeks to invade an individual's privacy. I believe the Framers would be appalled by the vision of mass governmental intrusions upon the integrity of the human body that the majority allows to become reality.

The immediate victims of the majority's constitutional timorousness will be those railroad workers whose bodily fluids the Government may now forcibly collect and analyze. But ultimately, today's decision will reduce the privacy all citizens may enjoy, for, as Justice Holmes understood, principles of law, once bent, do not snap back easily. I dissent.


You'd think that avowedly originalist conservatives would embrace this dissent and contest the wisdom of a secret court that has gone even farther than the wrongheaded precedent set by a 1989 majority opinion. Instead, conservatives by and large argue that the FISA court's decisions properly render legal the sweeping, warrantless surveillance being conducted on American citizens, without any hint of individualized suspicion. In doing so, conservatives are signing onto the notion that there are special, judicially created exceptions to the Bill of Rights. So are many Obama Administration supporters.