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Judge rules Florida drug-testing law unconstitutional

By on January 1, 2014
drug testing

In a major setback for Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, requiring welfare applicants to submit to drug tests is unconstitutional, according to a district court ruling Tuesday.

Scott immediately announced he would appeal the decision on the controversial 2011 law, reports Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven is a significant defeat for the governor in the extended dispute over drug testing many of Florida’s poorest residents.

Scriven found that demanding urine tests as a precondition for government aid violates the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the 30-page opinion, Scriven sternly warned, “there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied.”

Running on a campaign platform of mandatory drug testing, Scott insisted that urine tests are necessary to ensure poor children do not grow up in drug-riddled homes.

“Any illegal drug use in a family is harmful and even abusive to a child. We should have a zero tolerance policy for illegal drug use in families — especially those families who struggle to make ends meet and need welfare assistance to provide for their children,” Scott said in a statement response to Tuesday’s ruling. “We will continue to fight for Florida children who deserve to live in drug-free homes by appealing this judge’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals.”

In 2011, the Legislature passed, under pressure from the governor, the bill requiring all applicants seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – “poorest of the poor” Floridians – to submit to urine tests, Kam writes.

Applicants would pay up front about $35 out of their own pockets for the tests; reimbursed if they did tested negative for drugs. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida promptly sued the state on behalf of Luis Lebron, a single father and Navy veteran.

Scriven issued a preliminary injunction in October 2011, temporarily outing the law on hold. Scott appealed the decision, but an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel upheld Scriven’s decision in February, by finding the drug tests were an unreasonable search by government.

Scott’s subsequent request for a full court review was denied.

Scriven relied heavily the 11th Circuit decision for her Tuesday ruling, which also cited preceding U.S. Supreme Court decisions restricting urine tests used by government agencies for employees working dangerous jobs or jobs involving schoolchildren.

The governor’s lawyers argued TANF recipients are a “special interest” exception to the Fourth Amendment, where tests are necessary to ensure job readiness, meet social welfare program goals and guarantee public money is spent as it was intended, and not on drugs.

Scriven criticized the administrations expert witnesses, testimony and evidence used to support the law.

“In sum, there simply is no competent evidence offered on this record of the sort of pervasive drug problem the State envisioned in the promulgation of this statute,” Scriven concluded.

Even if the state could prove a distinct group of people exempt from constitutional protection, she wrote, it would create a dangerous precedent.

“If persons in an economic demographic could be shown to have a higher rate of drug use, would all such persons in that economic group be subjected to drug testing?” Scriven wrote. “Even if such suspicionless testing as proposed by the State were limited to those persons receiving state funds, would college students receiving governmental assistance to subsidize their education, for example, be subjected to random, suspicionless drug testing if it could be shown that drug use is demonstrably higher among college students?”

“The Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment precedent would suggest not.” 

The ACLU Florida applauded Scriven’s decision, Kam notes.

ACLU of Florida Associate Legal Director Maria Kayanan, lead attorney for the case, called it “a sound rejection of the evidence that the state presented to the district court in its attempt to establish that TANF applicants used drugs at a higher rate than the general population.” 

Scott’s promised appeal will be “a waste of the state’s time and taxpayer’s money,” Kayanan said, but “they certainly have the right to an appeal.”