OLYMPIA – The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that random drug testing of student athletes is unconstitutional, finding that each has “a genuine and fundamental privacy interest in controlling his or her own bodily functions.”
The court ruled unanimously in favor of some parents and students in the lower Columbia River town of Cathlamet who were fighting the tiny Wahkiakum School District’s policy of random urine tests of middle school and high school student athletes.
The high court wrote, “we can conceive of no way to draw a principled line permitting drug testing only student athletes.”
“If we were to allow random drug testing here, what prevents school districts from either later drug testing students participating in any extracurricular activities, as federal courts now allow, or testing the entire student population?” Justice Richard Sanders wrote for the court’s plurality. Joining him were Chief Justice Gerry Alexander and Justices Susan Owens and Tom Chambers.
Two families with high school students sued the district. Wahkiakum County Superior Court Judge Douglas Goelz ruled in 2006 that testing students was reasonable after less-intrusive methods failed to address the drug threat. The case was appealed directly to the state Supreme Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington represented the parents. ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said the case set precedent for the state, and “as a result of this ruling we don’t expect to see other districts pursuing suspicionless testing programs.”
However, the nine-member court was split on whether the plurality ruling was too sweeping. There were three separate concurrences, and at least one justice said random suspicionless drug testing would be OK under “carefully defined circumstances.”
Fred Johnson, who is representing the school district, said that while the court offered a clear ruling on the school district’s policy, the wider impact was less clear.
“We didn’t seem to receive a clear test that will guide policy makers in the future as to what is the standard,” he said. “If the Supreme Court justices can’t really decide on the test it’s extremely difficult for attorneys and clients to determine what is the test to have a valid program or policy.”
The sticking point between the ruling by Sanders and a concurrence written by Justice Barbara Madsen was over a “special needs exception” as in federal law, which would allow random searches in some circumstances.
Sanders’ ruling said there is no need to create that type of exception in Washington law.
“Simply passing muster under the federal constitution does not ensure the survival of the school district’s policy under our state constitution,” Sanders wrote.
“In the context of randomly drug testing student athletes, we see no reason to invent such a broad exception to the warrant requirement as such an alleged exception cannot be found in the common law,” he wrote.
Madsen, joined by Justices Charles Johnson, Mary Fairhurst and Justice Pro Tem Bobbe Bridge, said a narrowly drawn special needs exception would be consistent with Washington law.