STATE GOVERNMENT

Florida's welfare drug testing halted by federal judge

 

The state’s law requiring welfare applicants to pass drug tests was temporarily blocked by a federal judge, who indicated it likely violates the Fourth Amendment.

St. Petersburg Times

A federal judge in Orlando on Monday temporarily blocked Florida’s controversial law requiring welfare applicants be drug tested in order to receive benefits.

Judge Mary Scriven issued a temporary injunction against the state, writing in a 37-page order that the law could violate the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on illegal search and seizure.

“The constitutional rights of a class of citizen are at stake,” Scriven wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state last month on behalf of Luis Lebron, a 35-year-old Navy veteran and single father from Orlando who is finishing his college degree.

Lebron met all the criteria for receiving welfare, but refused to submit to a drug test on the grounds that requiring him to pay for and submit to one is unreasonable when there is no reason to believe he uses drugs.

Gov. Rick Scott, who signed the measure into law on May 31, touted it as a way to ensure taxpayer money isn’t “wasted” on those who use drugs. “Hopefully more people will focus on not using illegal drugs,” he said then.

But, in her order, Scriven issued a scathing assessment of the state’s argument in favor of the drug tests, saying the state failed to prove “special needs” as to why it should conduct such searches without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, as the law requires.

“If invoking an interest in preventing public funds from potentially being used to fund drug use were the only requirement to establish a special need,” Scriven wrote, “the state could impose drug testing as an eligibility requirement for every beneficiary of every government program. Such blanket intrusions cannot be countenanced under the Fourth Amendment.”

Jackie Schutz, deputy press secretary for Gov. Scott, sent an emailed statement in response to Scriven’s order.

“Drug testing welfare recipients is just a common-sense way to ensure that welfare dollars are used to help children and get parents back to work,” Schutz wrote. “The governor obviously disagrees with the decision, and he will evaluate his options regarding when to appeal.”

ACLU attorney Maria Kayanan said she was thrilled with Scriven’s order, though she suspects the state will appeal.

“This is a great day for Florida,” Kayanan said. “The law is a reflection of ugly stereotypes that people who need a helping hand from the state are drug dealers.”

Earlier this year, Scott also ordered drug testing of new state workers and spot checks of existing state employees under him. But testing was suspended after the American Civil Liberties Union also challenged that policy in a separate lawsuit.

Nearly 1,600 welfare applicants have refused to take the test since testing began in mid July, but they aren’t required to say why. Thirty-two applicants failed the test, and more than 7,000 have passed, according to the Department of Children and Families. The majority of positives were for marijuana.

Supporters of the law say applicants skipped the test because they knew they would have tested positive for drugs. Applicants must pay $25 to $45 for the test and are reimbursed by the state if they pass. It’s unclear if the state has saved money.

Under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the state gives $180 a month for one person or $364 for a family of four.

Those who test positive for drugs are ineligible for the cash assistance for one year, though passing a drug course can cut that period in half. If they fail a second time, they are ineligible for three years.

Besides finding that the state so far has failed to adequately defend its position in support of drug testing, Scriven’s order on Monday cited the fact that a 2003 state-sanctioned study of drug use among welfare recipients indicated the incidence of drug use was lower among Florida’s state welfare recipients than among the general population.

The authors of that study specifically recommended that the state not expand such drug testing because of the high costs of testing compared with the potential benefits.

Lebron, who is the sole caretaker of his 4-year-old son, said he’s “happy that the judge stood up for me and my rights and said the state can’t act without a reason or suspicion.”

Lebron is a student at the University of Central Florida pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting and expects to graduate in December, according to the complaint.

The ACLU says Florida was the first to enact such a law since Michigan tried more than a decade ago. Michigan’s random drug testing program for welfare recipients lasted five weeks in 1999 before it was halted by a judge, kicking off a four-year legal battle that ended with an appeals court ruling the law unconstitutional.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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