WASHINGTON -- Hospitals cannot test pregnant women for drugs without their consent and turn the results over to police, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a decision that bolstered the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches.
The 6-3 decision said such drug-testing by a South Carolina public hospital violated the Constitution even though the goal was to prevent women from harming their fetuses by using crack cocaine.
Such tests require a search warrant or consent, the justices said.
"While the ultimate goal of the program may well have been to get the women in question into substance abuse treatment and off of drugs, the immediate objective of the searches was to generate evidence for law enforcement purposes in order to reach that goal," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.
When hospitals gather evidence for the purpose of incriminating their patients, "they have a special obligation to make sure that the patients are fully informed about their constitutional rights, as standards of knowing waiver require," Stevens said.
Some women were arrested from their hospital beds at the Medical University of South Carolina, a public hospital in Charleston. The women were jailed under the state's child-endangerment law, but their lawyers contended the policy was counterproductive and would deter women from seeking prenatal care.
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 also deciding the drug tests were unlawful.
Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Writing for the three, Scalia said doctors are supposed to have the mother and child's welfare in mind, and "that they have in mind in addition the provision of evidence to the police should make no difference."
The Constitution's Fourth Amendment generally requires that searches be authorized by a court warrant or based on reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.
However, the Supreme Court has allowed drug testing without a warrant or individual suspicion when the government can demonstrate a "special need." Under this reasoning, the court has authorized such testing of public high school students and railroad workers involved in accidents.
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