The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to help the City of Glendale fight a lawsuit challenging the city's controversial new drug-testing policy.
Led by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, an outspoken advocate of employee drug testing, the board voted 3 to 1 to allow the county to join the case as a friend of the court. Supervisor Ed Edelman dissented, calling the use of county attorneys for a city matter "a very unusual precedent." Supervisor Deane Dana was absent.
Glendale's program, which began Aug. 1, requires drug and alcohol testing for all applicants for city jobs and nearly all city employees who seek a promotion.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city Sept. 15, claiming that pre-employment testing and testing of employees who are up for promotion violate an individual's right to privacy and personal dignity.
Tests for Alcohol, 9 Controlled Drugs
Under the program, applicants or candidates for promotion are required to submit to urinalysis for alcohol and nine controlled drugs. Under most circumstances, cocaine ingested two to four days before the test can be detected, as can marijuana smoked within the previous month.
In a legal opinion written for the county board, County Counsel DeWitt W. Clinton said the city's plan is "constitutionally defensible" and does not appear to be prohibited under Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
However, recent rulings have cast doubt on the legality of such programs. In the most recent case, a federal judge in New Jersey ruled in mid-September that mandatory drug testing of government employees, in the absence of any suspicion of drug use, violates the Fourth Amendment.
James Patrick, assistant city personnel director, said Tuesday that the tests cannot show whether a person is a drug abuser, only whether a person recently has taken a controlled substance.
"All we can really do is test a person and see if they pass or not," Patrick said. "It doesn't tell your motives, and it doesn't tell whether you're a one-time user or chronic user."
The laboratory that screens the tests has suggested levels for each drug beyond which it is determined that the employee or applicant has failed the test. For example, Patrick said, a person who inhales marijuana smoke from someone smoking nearby would probably not fail the test.
Applicants who fail the test are not hired, and employees who fail are referred to a city rehabilitation program or fired. Employees whose tests reveal certain drugs, such as tranquilizers, are given an opportunity to explain their use, Patrick said.
Antonovich, who represents the Glendale area, said in his appeal to the board that only employees in, or applicants for "sensitive" jobs such as vehicle operator, safety official, inspector and those handling public funds are required to submit to the city's tests.
However, Patrick said the rule applies to nearly every category of city employment. Those not affected are some desk clerks, secretaries, word-processor operators and a few others, he said.
Tests Cost $34 Each
Glendale officials estimate that they spend $34 for each person tested. They expect to test 350 people the first year.
The ACLU suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Glendale resident Lorraine L. Loder, 33, a Los Angeles lawyer.
Loder, who is not a city employee and would not be affected by the drug-testing policy, said she has participated in other civil-rights causes. Loder said she filed the suit because she opposes mandatory drug testing and is concerned that other cities will follow Glendale's lead in adopting strict drug-testing policies.
Two of the city's three employee associations also oppose testing before promotions but have not filed lawsuits, said James Hankla, county chief administrative officer.