Ferguson v. City of Charleston


Primary Content

The Center brought this case on behalf of ten women targeted by a "Search and Arrest" policy initiated in 1989 by the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and local law enforcement officials. Under the policy, MUSC medical personnel secretly searched a targeted group of pregnant women for evidence of cocaine use so that police could arrest them for the crimes of possession of drugs, child neglect, or distribution of drugs to a person under eighteen. The searches were conducted only at MUSC, the one hospital in Charleston where the patient population was predominately low-income and African-American. With the hospital's assistance, police arrested women days or even hours after delivery, removing them from their hospital beds in handcuffs and in shackles. Some women were taken to jail while still bleeding from giving birth. Others were arrested and jailed while they were pregnant, even though the prison could not provide prenatal care or drug treatment. When the incarcerated women went into labor, they were returned to the hospital in shackles. One woman was handcuffed to her bed throughout her delivery.

Filing date: 1993

State: ,
South Carolina

Crystal Ferguson, Darlene Nicholson, Lori Griffin, Sandra Powell

Center Attorney(s):
, Simon Heller, Julie Rikelman

Co-Counsel/Cooperating Attorneys:
David Rudovsky of Kairys, Rudovsky, Epstein, Messing & Rau, Lynn Paltrow, Susan Frietsche, David S. Cohen of Women's Law Project, Seth Kreimer, Susan Dunn (local counsel)

CRR fought this case all the way up the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in our favor, holding that the searches, which were conducted without warrants or probable cause, violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court affirmed that the "special needs" exception to the warrant and probable cause requirements should not be applied to law enforcement searches of citizens, who have a reasonable expectation of privacy in medical and other personal matters.

Every major medical group in the country, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes, opposes using punitive methods, such as the "Search and Arrest" policy, to address the problem of substance abuse during pregnancy. Studies show that threatening women with arrest and jail time deters them from seeking critical prenatal and postnatal care and drug treatment and could thereby actually harm their health and the health of their children.