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Appeals Court Halts Seattle's Pre-employment Drug Tests

The Washington Court of Appeals has unanimously ruled that the City of Seattle’s program of requiring urine tests of successful applicants for employment violates the state constitution. The 3-0 ruling came in a challenge to the City's urine-testing program brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on behalf of itself and eight Seattle residents. Reversing a King County Superior Court decision, the Court of Appeals enjoined enforcement of the City's program of suspicionless urine testing as an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.

"The City’s program violates human dignity. It requires individuals to undergo urine testing when there is no reason to suspect they have a drug problem. People should not have to subject their bodily fluids to drug testing to obtain a job for which they are qualified," said ACLU-WA Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals cited the strong protections for personal privacy in the Washington Constitution. Writing for the court, Judge Anne Ellington said, "The right of privacy is neither surrendered nor diminished by the submission of an application for government employment."

The opinion further stated, "The privacy interest is a fundamental right, and the City's intrusion on this right is significant … citizens who apply for employment … must submit to a humiliating procedure in order for the City to learn the chemical content of their urine."

The Court of Appeals held that suspicionless urine testing of government workers is permissible only in very limited situations, such as where the job involves tasks that might create a genuine risk to public safety. By contrast, positions subject to urine testing under the City's program include librarian, golf course technician, tennis instructor, and usher. The court, therefore, found that the City's program is not narrowly tailored to safety needs. "The city's program represents a breathtakingly broad concept as to what jobs implicate public safety," Judge Ellington said in the ruling.

The City of Seattle in 1996 began to require pre-employment urine testing for applicants selected for all municipal jobs. After objections by the ACLU and others, the City Council twice scaled back the scope of positions subject to urine testing. But the program of suspicionless testing remains overly broad. The ACLU filed suit challenging the urine-testing program in 1997, and King County Superior Court Judge Joseph Wesley upheld the program in January, 1999.

The appeals court decision reverses that ruling and limits pre-employment urine testing to sworn police officers, firefighters, and positions requiring an employee to carry a firearm. The appeals court remands the case to the lower court for entry of an injunction against further testing with the exception of these positions. If the City believes that there are other jobs that implicate public safety, the City must prove that contention, and the trial court may modify the injunction accordingly.

"The ACLU agrees that the City should not tolerate job performance hampered by drug use. The City can accomplish this without requiring people to submit samples of their urine before getting hired. The City can use less intrusive measures, such as conducting thorough background checks of prospective employees, to determine whether someone will be able to perform on the job," said the ACLU-WA’s Julya Hampton.

The plaintiffs are Seattle residents and taxpayers who, on principle, object to their local government treating fellow citizens as suspects without good reason. Among the plaintiffs is a former City of Seattle employee, as well as successful business owners and employers who do not subject their employees to urine tests. The lawsuit challenges the urine-testing program as an expenditure of public funds for an unconstitutional purpose.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the following Seattle residents:

  • Kirk Robinson and Jean Robinson – President and Vice-President of the Robinson Company, a construction contract monitoring firm
  • Patricia Carlisle and Karen Jensen – President and Vice-President of Urban Press, Inc.
  • Oscar Eason – National President of Blacks in Government
  • John Junker – Professor of Law at the University of Washington
  • Don Moreland – Businessman and former candidate for the Washington Legislature
  • Charles Royer – Former Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and former Mayor of the City of Seattle

Cooperating attorneys Mike Kipling and Laura Buckland are handling the case for the ACLU-WA.