In a case that could prevent all California cities and public agencies from screening potential employees for illegal drugs unless the public’s safety could be threatened, a state appeals court has struck down a major portion of the city of Glendale’s drug testing policy.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the decision a victory for personal privacy. The ACLU filed the lawsuit in 1986 on behalf of a woman who objected to the city’s then-new practice of requiring all job finalists or employees seeking promotions to take urine tests.
But attorneys for the city said they may seek a new trial or even ask the state Supreme Court to consider the issue.
“We pursued this case because Glendale’s drug-testing policy was a clear abuse of power,” said Marvin Krakow, an ACLU attorney. “We’ve begun to recognize as a society that ‘Dragnet'-style testing doesn’t deal with substance abuse. It is a chemical witch hunt, and the courts have begun to concur.”
Glendale has about 1,600 employees that fall within several hundred job categories. During a long trial at the Superior Court level, the city was forced to justify why it required a drug test for each position, from file clerk to firefighter to police officer to shop mechanic to city manager.
In the end, the court ruled that the city could require applicants for roughly 80% of its jobs to submit to drug testing. But both the ACLU and the city appealed the verdict, with the ACLU seeking a broader injunction and the city contending that none of its drug-testing policy should be banned.
City Atty. Scott Howard said Thursday that the 2nd District Court of Appeal’s decision “essentially eroded” the city’s ability to test employment and promotion candidates for drugs from about 80% of its jobs down to about 50%.
The appellate court redlined dozens of job categories for which the lower court had ruled drug testing was acceptable, and said that “drug testing is valid only as to positions in which the regular duties involve some special or obvious physical or ethical demand,” according to court documents.
The court did not rule out drug testing for police officers, jobs involving heavy driving and other positions where the potential threat to public safety outweighs an individual’s right to privacy.
But Howard said the city will probably pursue the matter either by seeking a new trial at the Superior Court level or asking the state’s highest court for a hearing. He contended that the appeals court, which handed down its decision Monday, held the city up to different standards than private companies, whose rights to conduct blanket drug testing have been upheld repeatedly in the courts.
“I don’t think job applicants should have a greater expectation that they’re going to be tested for drugs in the public sector versus the private sector,” Howard said. “I also think the taxpayers have an interest in ensuring the employees hired by the city are not drug users.”