Federal Court Invalidates Drug Testing of Welfare Applicants

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In yet another constitutional rejection of mandatory drug testing, a federal judge this week struck down Florida’s program to require drug testing of all applicants for public assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The ruling makes permanent an earlier ruling that blocked the program, and reinforces many other court rulings that drug tests targeting particular populations are unconstitutional if they are not specifically tailored to protect public safety or another state interest.

In this case, U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven rejected the notion that there is any correlation between applying for welfare and abusing drugs. “[T]here 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’,” Scriven wrote.

Florida’s law subjects all TANF applicants to random drug testing. While applicants must “consent” to the test through their signature, those who decline are not eligible for the program. The plaintiff in this case, Navy veteran and full-time student Luis W. Lebron, filed the lawsuit after refusing to submit to a drug test on principle. Drug tests are considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and typically require suspicion that the person is guilty of a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has carved out a set of very limited exceptions to this rule for circumstances in which drug use might risk public safety. Applicants for government jobs involving heavy machinery, for example, may be subject to drug testing.

But as Scriven pointed out, “there is no evidence that there is greater drug use and child abuse within the population of economically disadvantaged families who participate in the TANF program.” In fact, 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. “[E]ven if child neglect or abuse, for whatever reasons, impacts the lives of families in the TANF program, Florida has a separate, well-established and comprehensive statutory, administrative and judicial scheme codified in Chapter 39 of the Florida Statutes, which governs Florida’s obligation to protect children from child abuse, abandonment and neglect,” she wrote.

Florida may appeal this decision. However, on the last round of appeal, the appeals court upheld Scriven’s decision to temporarily block the law. The decision may influence other states, where a new spate of ALEC and Big Pharma-backed drug-testing laws are proliferating despite negative court precedent. In Kansas, lawmakers aimed to make a statement about the laws’ hipocrisy by calling for a similar measure to require drug-testing of all state legislators. But these laws not only raise constitutional questions. They have also been found repeatedly to waste time and money.