COURTS

Temporary ban on Fla. welfare drug testing upheld

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

A federal appeals court upheld the temporary ban on Florida’s drug-testing for welfare recipients Tuesday, saying that a lawsuit challenging the program had a good chance of succeeding.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta sided with a lower court decision, stating that Florida failed to show that the drug testing plan was so critical that the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches by the government, should be suspended.

The decision — which did not weigh in on the case’s ultimate constitutionality question — is the latest setback in Gov. Rick Scott’s controversial drug testing push. In 2011,Scott and the Florida Legislature instituted a program for drug-testing all recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Luis Lebron, a single-father and TANF applicant who refused to take the test on constitutional grounds, filed a lawsuit with help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

In authoring the court’s opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett said that Florida had not proven that its drug-testing program serves a “special” or “immediate” need, or that it even protected children in families with substance abuse.

“There is nothing so special or immediate about the government’s interest in ensuring that TANF recipients are drug free so as to warrant suspension of the Fourth Amendment,” Barkett wrote. “The only known and shared characteristic of the individuals who would be subjected to Florida’s mandatory drug testing program is that they are financially needy families with children.”

Scott immediately vowed to appeal the decision and take his fight to the Supreme Court.

“The court’s ruling today is disturbing," he said in a statement. "Welfare is 100 percent about helping children. Welfare is taxpayer money to help people looking for jobs who have children. Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the well-being of Florida families.”

The appeals court relied on a similar case in Georgia, which struck down a program requiring political candidates to take drug tests. That case found that Georgia did not show that there was a drug problem among elected officials, and the law was mostly “symbolic.”

In rejecting Florida’s appeal to the lower court’s preliminary injunction, a trio of federal judges took a similar position.

“The state has presented no evidence that simply because an applicant for TANF benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior,” Barkett wrote on behalf of the court.

The ACLU’s associate legal director Maria Kayanan said the ruling was a vindication for struggling families who apply for government assistance.

"The state of Florida can’t treat an entire segment of our community like suspected criminals simply because they are poor and are trying to get temporary assistance from the government to support their families,” said Kayanan, who was lead counsel on the case.

Florida also passed a law last year requiring drug testing for all state workers, but that issue is also tangled in constitutional challenges and litigation. A district court found the state worker testing plan unconstitutional, and Scott appealed. The appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments on that case next month.

Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.

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