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Supreme Court won't hear drug-test appeal

Posted on Tue, Jun. 17, 2003
The Associated Press

Washington The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to hear a second appeal from a South Carolina hospital in a lawsuit over now-illegal hospital drug tests on pregnant women.

The Supreme Court ruled two years ago the tests, once given at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Some women who tested positive for drugs were arrested from their beds shortly after giving birth.

The Medical University of South Carolina had asked the Supreme Court to consider the narrower issue of whether the women knew their urine was being screened for drugs, as part of a 1989 policy designed to stop the crack baby epidemic.

The answer will help determine damages in the case.

The justices, without comment, declined. The case now will return to a federal district court in Charleston, where a jury will rule on damages.

After ruling two years ago the policy, since abandoned, was an unreasonable search, the justices had ordered a lower court to consider the hospital's argument that the women consented to the tests. A divided panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that most of the women who sued did not know they were being tested.

The appeals court ruling could be interpreted as requiring patient consent for every test or procedure.

Robert Hood, the attorney for the city of Charleston and the hospital, said that would endanger laws requiring "public health care workers, as well as a whole spectrum of others such as social workers and teachers, to report evidence of suspected crimes such as child abuse or domestic violence."

The women's attorney, Priscilla Smith with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said patients need to be aware of tests run on them. A different ruling "would violate fundamental norms of medical ethics, undermining the doctor-patient relationship and threatening public health" because some pregnant women would not seek care.

In 1993, 10 women sued MUSC, medical school officials, the city of Charleston and local law enforcement authorities, saying the testing was an unconstitutional search.

A federal jury in Charleston rejected the women's claim and, in 1999, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the drug tests, saying the law allows searches without a warrant when the government shows a special need.

The appeals judges said the policy was a valid effort to reduce crack cocaine use by pregnant woman. Police arrested about 30 maternity patients and charged them under the state's child endangerment law while the policy was in effect.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court later reversed the appeals court, saying the testing violated the Constitution.

The case is Charleston v. Ferguson, 02-1528