Tracknum: 20863.001201bf81a3.239ce380.94d0c026
Pubdate: Mon, 28 Feb 2000
Source: Associated Press
Copyright: 2000 Associated Press
Author: Richard Carelli, Associated Press Writer


WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether public
hospitals can test pregnant patients for drug use and tell police who tested

The justices said they will review a challenge to a South Carolina
hospital's policy aimed at detecting pregnant women who use crack cocaine.
The policy's opponents say it violates women's Fourth Amendment protections
against unreasonable searches.

The hospital discontinued its policy after a 1993 lawsuit was filed, but the
court's decision, expected sometime in 2001, could determine whether it ever
gets reinstated and whether other hospitals consider adopting similar

The dispute stems from South Carolina's efforts to prosecute women who use
crack cocaine while pregnant under the state's child-endangerment law.

The state law makes it a crime to ``refuse or neglect to provide the proper
care and attention'' so that a child ``is endangered or is likely to be
endangered.'' The state's Supreme Court has ruled that a viable fetus - one
able to live outside the uterus - is a child under the law and has upheld
its use against pregnant women.

South Carolina prosecutors have done so dozens of times since 1989.

The nation's highest court refused in 1998 to review such prosecutions. But
no other state's top court has allowed them. The highest courts in Florida,
Kentucky, Nevada and Ohio explicitly have disallowed them.

At the Medical University of South Carolina, a public hospital in
Charleston, officials decided in 1989 to help such prosecutions. If a
woman's urine test indicated cocaine use, she was arrested for distributing
the drug to a minor.

In early 1990, the policy was changed to give drug-using patients a choice
between being arrested and enrolling for treatment.

Ten women sued the hospital and others in 1993, contending among other
things that the urine testing, performed without court warrants, amounted to
unreasonable searches that violated their privacy.

After a six-week trial, a federal jury ruled against the women. The 4th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that verdict last July.

``In light of the documented health hazards of maternal cocaine use and the
resulting drain on public resources, (hospital) officials unquestionably
possessed a substantial interest in taking steps to reduce cocaine use by
pregnant women,'' the appeals court ruled.

It also said the policy effectively advanced that interest and that the
urine tests ``were minimally intrusive.''

For those reasons, the appeals court concluded that the searches were
reasonable under a ``special needs'' exception to the Fourth Amendment's
general requirement that a search be authorized by court warrant or be based
on ``probable cause'' to suspect a crime.

In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for the 10 women called the appeals
court ruling a ``radical extension of the special needs doctrine.''

The appeals court ruling, they said, ``would permit law enforcement and
other governmental officers to engage in searches as a means of gaining
evidence for arrests and prosecutions without a warrant or individualized
suspicion, so long as the government can present a health or safety reason
for its actions.''

The case is Ferguson vs. City of Charleston, 99-936.