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Drug Testing's Threat to Privacy

December 07, 1986

The Orange County Board of Supervisors has formed a task force to consider drug and alcohol testing for the county's 12,000 employees. The mere study of the issue by county officials is cause for concern, in part because of the potential for abusing employees' privacy rights, but also because the need for such a program itself is questionable.

Viewed in the most favorable light, the board appears to be joining the trend. Thus far, seven of Orange County's 26 cities have some sort of drug-testing policy, and the issue is also under study in San Diego and Riverside counties.

A more skeptical viewer might ask whether the board is on a fishing expedition. Even Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who proposed the study, noted that there is no evidence that drug or alcohol abuse is widespread among county employees. Why, then, risk making a mountain out of a mole hill?

The board's desire to do something positive about controlling drug use is commendable. We're sympathetic to the supervisors' concern. But we're also worried that they could be on the road to mandatory drug testing of government employees. That's a shotgun approach that, as one federal judge recently noted, would "violate the rights of the innocent in order to act against the guilty." That particular judge ruled that mandatory drug testing of government employees in the absence of individual suspicion violates the Constitution.

The opinion was issued in a case involving government employees in Plainfield, N.J. It did not cover private employers or pre-employment testing.

It's a pertinent legal ruling the supervisors and their task force should be aware of as they consider implementing a drug-testing program.

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