Federal Appeals Court Rejects Drug Testing Of Welfare Applicants

A federal appeals court panel unanimously upheld a decision to halt a Florida law that imposed a mandatory drug test on all state applicants for welfare benefits. “The simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy,” the court held.

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. Yet, there is nothing inherent to the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a “concrete danger” that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use or that should drug use occur, that the lives of TANF recipients are “fraught with such risks of injury to others that even a momentary lapse of attention can have disastrous consequences.” Thus, the State’s argument that it has a special need to ensure that the goals of the TANF program are not jeopardized by the effects of drug use seems to rest on the presumption of unlawful drug use.

The ruling upholds a lower court decision that also concluded the law was likely unconstitutional and should be halted. But even in the wake of this decision and many others that have held other random drug testing programs unconstitutional, the Indiana House passed a measure just this week to require all welfare recipients to undergo drug testing. And in 2011 and 2012 , six other states have passed laws that impose some drug testing or screening, although only Georgia imposes mandatory drug testing on all applicants.

Florida’s experience with the program suggested that welfare applicants are less likely to abuse drugs than the general public, with only two percent of applicants testing positive. The laws have also been shown to cost states even more money. Nonetheless, Florida Rep. Scott Plakon told The Daily Show last year that the law was justified by the principle that those receiving taxpayer funds should be willing to submit to a drug test. When asked whether Plakon, as a taxpayer-funded employee, would submit to a drug test, he said, “If a law passed requiring legislators to do so, I’d be happy to.” But, he added, he would not make it a priority to introduce any such law.