Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton

Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995), was a U.S. Supreme Court decision which upheld the constitutionality of random drug testing regimen implemented by the local public schools in Vernonia, Oregon. Under that regimen, student athletes were required to submit to random drug testing before being allowed to participate in sports. During the season, 10% of all athletes were selected at random for testing. The Supreme Court held that although the tests were searches under the Fourth Amendment, they were reasonable in light of the schools' interest in preventing teenage drug use.

Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued March 28, 1995
Decided June 21, 1995
Full case nameVernonia School District 47J v. Acton et ux., Guardians ad Litem for Acton
Citations515 U.S. 646 (more)
115 S. Ct. 2386
ArgumentOral argument
Case history
PriorVerdict for defendant in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, 796 F. Supp. 1354 (D. Or. 1992); reversed by United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 23 F.3d 1514 (9th Cir. 1994); cert. granted, 513 U.S. 1013 (1994).
The Fourth Amendment allows random drug testing of high school students involved in athletic programs.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Case opinions
MajorityScalia, joined by Rehnquist, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer
DissentO'Connor, joined by Stevens, Souter
Laws applied
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution


In the mid-1980s, officials in the school district in Vernonia noticed a precipitous rise in drug use among the students in the Vernonia School District. Disciplinary problems arose in frequency and severity. Student-athletes were prevalent among Vernonia's students. At the trial, the Vernonia High School football and wrestling coaches noted they had witnessed injuries attributable to student drug use.

In response, the school district offered special classes, speakers, and presentations to the students intended to deter drug use. It brought in a specially trained dog to detect drugs, but the drug problem continued unabated. After inviting comments from the parents of the district's students, the district adopted a drug-testing plan.

The protocol of the arcade games testing program the district initiated was straightforward. All student-athletes would be required to submit to the program as a condition of participating in athletics. All athletes were tested at the beginning of the season, and 10% of the athletes were selected randomly every week to provide a urine sample. The samples were collected in a manner that preserved the students' modesty. If a student's sample tested positive, the student was given the option of either undergoing counseling and submitting to six weekly drug tests or sitting out the remainder of that season as well as the following season.

New Jersey v. T. L. O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985), is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States addressing the constitutionality of a search of a public high school student for contraband after she was caught smoking in her school's lavatory. A subsequent search of her purse revealed drug paraphernalia, marijuana, and documentation of drug sales. She was charged as a juvenile for the drugs and paraphernalia found in the search. She fought the search, claiming it violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, held that the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Majority OpinionEdit

The Fourth Amendment only protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Although a search is presumptively reasonable if carried out pursuant to a warrant issued upon a showing of probable cause, the court has a long history of allowing leniency when "special needs" outside of ordinary law enforcement needs make obtaining a warrant impractical.[1] Such "special needs" adhere in the public school context, because administrators need to be able to maintain order within the school. The final vote was 6-3 in favor of the school.

The Fourth Amendment only protects against intrusions upon legitimate expectations of privacy. Central to the Court's analysis in this case was the fact that the "subjects of the policy are (1) children, who (2) have been committed to the temporary custody of the State as schoolmaster." The schools act in loco parentis to the children, and have "such a portion of the power of the parent committed to his charge... as may be necessary to answer the purposes for which he was employed." Therefore, in the public school context, the reasonableness inquiry "cannot disregard the schools' custodial and tutelary responsibility for children." Public schools require students to undergo vaccinations, vision, hearing, and dermatological screenings, and other examinations. Thus, public school students have a lesser expectation of privacy than members of the general public.

Among public school students, athletes have even less of an expectation of privacy. They suit up in locker rooms before practice. They take communal showers afterward. They subject themselves to additional regulation and medical screenings in order to participate in school sports. "Somewhat like adults who choose to participate in a 'closely regulated industry,' students who voluntarily participate in school athletics have reason to expect intrusions upon normal rights and privileges, including privacy."

Urinalysis intrudes upon a person's privacy in two ways. First, the subject is monitored while providing the actual sample. In the case of the Vernonia policy, boys were visually monitored from behind while providing the sample, while girls were monitored aurally from outside a closed stall. The Court considered this a "negligible" intrusion on the subject's privacy interest. Second, the test discloses personal information concerning "the state of the subject's body and the materials he has ingested." But the school was testing only for the use of drugs, not whether the student was diabetic or pregnant. The results of the test were disclosed only to a small group of school officials and not to law enforcement. And although the Vernonia policy required students to disclose prescription drugs the student was taking in advance, the Court was unwilling to assume that the school district would misuse the medical information disclosed to it by student athletes. The Court thus concluded that the invasion of privacy was "not significant."

By contrast, the schools' interest in deterring drug use among students was truly important. Drug use has a more deleterious effect on adolescents than on adults. The "effects of a drug-infested school are visited not just upon the users, but upon the entire student body and faculty, as the educational process is disrupted." Drug use by student athletes, moreover, increases the risk of injury during sporting events themselves. The Vernonia student athletes were the leaders of the drug culture at the school; it was "self-evident" to the Court that "a drug problem largely fueled by the 'role model' effect of athletes' drug use, and of particular danger to athletes, is effectively addressed by making sure that athletes do not use drugs." Acton argued that a less intrusive policy would require some individualized suspicion before testing a student for drugs, but the Court observed that the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness requirement did not demand the use of the least intrusive means to achieve the government's aims. Thus, the Vernonia policy was a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.


Justice O'Connor dissented because the Court's decision did not rest on the requirement of individualized suspicion and did not adequately explain why individualized suspicion was not required in this context. Historically, the Court had disapproved of blanket searches, particularly in the criminal context, where the search was more than minimally intrusive. More recently, the Court had limited its willingness to dispense with the individualized suspicion requirement only in particularly dangerous contexts, such as prisons. Furthermore, the school district itself already had in place a discipline system based on individualized suspicion for a variety of infractions, such that adding drug testing to the mix would not be particularly onerous. All of the evidence justifying the drug testing program "consisted of first- or second-hand stories of particular, identifiable students acting in ways that plainly gave rise to reasonable suspicion of in-school drug use." If the school district had acted against these particular students, it could have avoided intruding on Acton's Fourth Amendment rights at all.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn., 489 U.S. 602, 109 S. Ct. 1402, 103 L. Ed. 2d 639 (1989), 623, Citing Camara and T.L.O

Further readingEdit

  • Arnold, T. L. (1996). "Constitutionality of Random Drug Testing of Student Athletes Makes the Cut…but Will the Athletes?". Journal of Law & Education. 25 (1): 190. ISSN 0275-6072.
  • Shutler, Samantha E. (1996). "Random, Suspicionless Drug Testing of High School Athletes". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (Submitted manuscript). 86 (4): 1265–1303. doi:10.2307/1144059. JSTOR 1144059.

External linksEdit