A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Florida’s new law requiring welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits. U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven said it may violate the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
According to the judge, there is a “substantial likelihood” that plaintiff Luis W. Lebron will succeed in his challenge to the law based on the Fourth Amendment, which is supposed to protect Americans from being unfairly searched.
The drug testing, begun after a campaign pledge by Governor Rick Scott, started July 1 for applicants trying to get cash assistance through a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Only 32 applicants out of more than 21,000 from July through September have tested positive for drugs. Another 1,597 filled out the paperwork for benefits but then declined to take the drug test.
The Florida Department of Children and Families said that Lebron is eligible for financial assistance of about $241 a month, if he took the drug test. But Lebron, who said he has never used illegal drugs, argues that requiring him to be tested and to pay for that testing violates his civil rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union chose Lebron as the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit challenging the constitutionality of the drug tests.
Judge Scriven blocked the state from requiring Lebron to submit to a “suspicion less” drug test as a condition for receiving welfare benefits until the case is decided.
“I’m very happy that the judge protected my rights and privacy,” Lebron said on Monday. “I was anticipating a favorable decision. I just felt deep down inside the this was the right thing to do. This is a great thing for Floridians.”
“I’m delighted for our client and delighted to have confirmation that all of us remain protected from unreasonable, suspicionless government searches and seizures,” said ACLU’s lead attorney, Maria Kayanan.
It is “well established” that a drug test is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment, Judge Scriven said in her ruling, though the state of Florida claims the drug testing of welfare recipients is not a search.
The collection of an applicant’s urine “entails intrusion into a highly personal and private bodily function,” Scriven said, and that “extends well beyond the initial passing of urine.”
Positive drug tests are not kept confidential in the same manner as medical records, and are shared with DCF, state abuse hotline counselors and medical reviews, the judge said.
“More troubling, positive test results are memorialized, perhaps indefinitely, in a database that the State admits can be accessed by law enforcement,” Scriven wrote. “This potential interception of positive drug tests by law enforcement implicates a ‘far more substantial’ invasion of privacy than in ordinary civil drug testing cases.”
The state also hasn’t demonstrated a substantial, special need to justify the “wholesale, suspicion less drug testing of all applicants” for welfare benefits, the judge ruled.
Judge Scriven was critical of the Legislature for enacting the law at a time when nearly identical legislation in Michigan was successfully challenged.
She also criticized the state for apparently ignoring a pilot project and study of welfare applicants’ drug usage in 1999, which found applicants weren’t any more likely to be using drugs than the general population.
“The State invokes the government’s general interest in fighting the ‘war on drugs’ and the associated ills of drug abuse generally to contend that TANF funds should not be used to fund the drug trade,” Scriven wrote. “The Court agrees. “But, 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, 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,” the judge ruled.
Gov. Scott’s spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said the governor was “considering” an appeal.
“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,” she claimed. “The Governor obviously disagrees with the decision and he will evaluate his options regarding when to appeal.”