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Supreme Court Hears Drug Moms Case

September 29, 2000

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ Lori Griffin was about to go home from the hospital after an overnight stay for premature labor pains. Instead, she was slapped in handcuffs after testing positive for cocaine.

``They told me I was under arrest for distributing to a minor,″ Griffin recalled. ``They put me in handcuffs and shackles and put me in a wheelchair and took me to jail.″

Eleven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether testing pregnant women for drugs and reporting the results to police violates the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches.

The justices’ decision, expected next year, could determine whether other hospitals can adopt similar practices.

The South Carolina attorney general contends such programs help prevent babies from being born addicted. The state has used its child-endangerment law to prosecute pregnant women who use drugs, and South Carolina doctors must report as child abuse drug use by women late in pregnancy.

Opponents say the tests discourage pregnant drug users from seeking prenatal care.

``People are very frustrated with addiction and drug use and they want as big a stick as they can get,″ said Susan Dunn, a lawyer for Griffin and other women whose case is before the court. ``This would give a new power of coercion.″

The American Medical Association, in a friend-of-the-court brief, also said the state’s drug-testing policy ``forces physicians to compromise their commitment to patient confidentiality.″

Griffin was a patient at the public Medical University of South Carolina, where officials in 1989 decided to help prosecutors battling the crack epidemic. If a woman’s urine test indicated cocaine use, she was reported to police and arrested for distributing the drug to a minor.

The program _ run by the hospital and city prosecutors _ tested women who had a history of cocaine use or whose prenatal exams suggested use.

In 1990, the policy was changed to give drug-using patients a choice between arrest and treatment. But 10 women sued the hospital, saying tests performed without court warrants violate the Fourth Amendment.

The women all signed a consent form, said Dunn, ``but it was not adequate to consent to a search.″

The hospital’s program was ended in 1994 after the federal government threatened to take away $18 million of the school’s research money. During the five years, 253 pregnant women tested positive for cocaine. Most chose treatment, but 30 were arrested.

Griffin did not accept immediate treatment and sat in jail almost three months before giving birth. A relative took custody of the infant and Griffin was released to get treatment.

She and the other women have lost two rounds of the court battle, with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals saying officials had a substantial interest in reducing drug use because of the costs of caring for cocaine babies. The searches were reasonable under a ``special needs″ exception to the Fourth Amendment, the court said.

``Do we put mother’s privacy first or the baby’s right to a normal life?″ asked Bobby Hood, a lawyer representing the hospital and others.

Attorney General Charlie Condon said that no matter the outcome of the court case, testing will continue under a statewide program that now refers women to Family Court instead of criminal court. A judge then can order women into treatment.

Condon, who has said ``the unborn child has a constitutional right to protection from its mother’s drug abuse,″ said authorities will get search warrants if the women do not give their consent.


On the Net:

State Web site: http://www.state.sc.us

Appeals court case: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court4th&navbycase&no972512

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