Appeals court: College's drug tests of all students illegal

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Thursday reinstated a judge's 2013 ruling that a central Missouri technical college's mandatory drug testing policy is unconstitutional when applied to all students.

The full 8th U.S. District Court of Appeals, in a 9-2 ruling, sided with the American Civil Liberties Union in reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the same St. Louis-based court. The panel overturned U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey's permanent injunction that barred State Technical College of Missouri — formerly Linn State Technical College — from drug screening all of its roughly 1,200 students.

But Thursday's 32-page ruling does uphold Laughrey's permitting the college to drug test students in five programs involving safety-sensitive training — aviation maintenance, electrical distribution systems, industrial electricity, power sports, and servicing of Caterpillar heavy equipment.

In pressing the universal screening the ACLU decried as unconstitutionally invasive, the 55-year-old college insisted that fostering a drug-free environment amounted to a "special need" justifying departure from the usual warrant and probable-cause requirements.

The 8th Circuit disagreed Thursday, concluding the college's drug-testing mandate wasn't sparked by a crisis and that the school "does not believe it has a student drug-use problem greater than that experienced by other colleges."

"Fostering a drug-free environment is surely a laudable goal," Judge Roger Wollman wrote for the court's majority, but "Linn State has not demonstrated that fostering a drug-free environment is a 'special need' as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge C. Arlen Beam wrote that the college had a right to drug test all students. Beam said "a severe, relevant and discernible drug crisis supportive of Linn State's actions does exist and has existed every moment relevant to this litigation."

Beam added that the court erred "in rejecting Linn State's reasoned conclusion that its suspicionless drug testing and screening program ensures safety and deters harm to every student."

Messages left Thursday by The Associated Press with the college's president and spokesman were not returned.

The ACLU, which filed the class-action lawsuit in 2011, heralded Thursday's ruling as a warning to other schools mulling similarly sweeping drug tests.

"We shouldn't treat students seeking to better their lives through education with immediate suspicion," Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri's legal chief, said in a statement. Under the Fourth Amendment, "every person has the right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure — including college students."

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