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What special-needs searches does the U.S. Supreme Court recognize?

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In its broadest sense, a special needs search is a search done without a search warrant issued by a court of law or without probable cause.

Almost all invasive searches in the United States must be done with a search warrant or with probable cause, a condition of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, the Supreme Court has recognized the legitimacy of a class of "special needs" searches, or searches that can be undertaken with no suspicion of any kind and without court order. Such searches must meet a three-part test established by the court: the nature of the search makes it impractical to obtain a warrant, the search is being undertaken to obtain evidence, and, there is a compelling interest that outweighs the invasiveness of the search.

Examples of special needs searches include a probation officer searching the home of a prisoner released on probation to ensure compliance with probation conditions, drug testing of government staff employed in positions of public trust such as police officers or prison guards, body and bag checks done before accessing secure areas of airports, and school locker checks.

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Special needs searches are searches that are done without a warrant, typically by government officials who are not police officers.  The Court allows such searches under three conditions:

  • It must be impractical to obtain a warrant.
  • There must be a governmental interest in the search that outweighs the degree to which the search intrudes on the individual.
  • The purpose of the search must not be to obtain evidence for law-enforcement purposes.

There are a number of kinds of special needs searches that have been allowed by the Supreme Court.  They include:

  • Searches of public school students by school officials.
  • Some searches of employees by public employers.
  • Drug testing for employment purposes.
  • Searches of people on probation.
  • Airport security screening.

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