The Supreme Court yesterday struck down a South Carolina drug testing project in which pregnant women were subjected to secret searches for evidence of drug use in Ferguson v. City of Charleston. The scheme violated the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, the Court said in a 6-3 opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens that was based heavily on the Miranda decision. The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and the Women’s Law Project argued the case on behalf of ten Charleston plaintiffs.
The South Carolina “Search and Arrest” policy, initiated in 1989, was a joint effort between local police and prosecutors and the Medical University of South Carolina, the only hospital where the searches were conducted, and the only hospital in Charleston where the patient population was predominately low-income and African-American. Hospital personnel secretly searched pregnant women for evidence of cocaine use, without a warrant and without the women’s consent. Personnel then released the confidential medical information, including the drug test results as well as HIV status and sterilization procedures, to local police, who promptly arrested any women who tested positive for cocaine. Over a five-year period, 30 women were arrested, some of them handcuffed in their hospital beds immediately after giving birth. Others were jailed while still pregnant, despite the fact that the jail could not provide prenatal care or drug treatment.