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Federal Suit Filed Against Florida Law Requiring Drug Tests of Welfare Recipients

| September 7, 2011

Where civil liberties go down the toilet. (© Caleb Sconosciuto)

A new Florida law requiring applicants to pass drug tests before getting temporary cash assistance from the government amounts to unconstitutional suspicionless searches, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday after filing a suit in federal court to shut the program down.

ACLU representatives, lawyers and a 35-year-old college student who refused to take the test said the new state requirement stigmatizes low-income recipients. The suit was filed late Tuesday in the federal district court in Orlando. (See the full complaint below.)

“The new law assumes that everyone who needs a little help has a drug problem,” said Luis Lebron, a University of Central Florida accounting undergraduate who is the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit. “It’s wrong and unfair. It judges a whole group of people on their temporary economic situation.”

As of July 1, new applicants for temporary government assistance through the program known as TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, were required to pay for a drug test. If the test comes back negative, the fee is repaid by the state. A positive test bars the applicant from receiving benefits for a year.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks to nullify the law. The group, which includes the Miami-based Florida Justice Institute, also filed a motion to stop the testing of recipients until the court rules on the constitutionality of the law.

A U.S. Navy veteran, Lebron is a single, custodial father who is scheduled to graduate in December. He was denied benefits when he refused to take the test, which costs between $25 and $45. Eight counties have yet to establish certified test sites.

“Floridians don’t lose their Constitutional rights because they need temporary assistance,” said Randy Berg, Executive Director of the Florida Justice Institute. “It doesn’t matter how popular it is to single out a group of people to make a political statement, the rights guaranteed by the Constitution apply to everyone – even poor people – and everyone has a right to be free of suspicionless government searches.”

Backers of the measure, including Gov. Rick Scott, say private businesses have been requiring such tests for years and government should be no different. A survey released Wednesday by the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, a trade group for testing companies, found 57 percent of employers conduct drug tests on all job candidates.

“It’s important we make sure taxpayer money isn’t going to help pay for someone’s drug habit, but that the money is going to help the children for whom it was intended,” Scott spokesman Lane Wright said Wednesday in an email. “That’s what this law does.”

Wright said the federal government has allowed states to test for drugs, a sign that the courts will back Florida’s plan.

Critics argue that recipients are being singled out based on a myth that poor people are more likely to use illegal drugs. They point out that other government programs such as student loans, food stamps and business grants do not require recipients to be screened for drug use.


So far, state says only 2 percent of recipients have tested positive for illegal drugs, a failure rate that is below that of the general population. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 8.7 percent of Americans age 12 and older reported using illicit drugs.

“It’s an ugly public policy based on stereotypes and talking points,” said Howard Simon, ACLU Florida, executive director. “We’re not the only state to be trading in these ugly stereotypes and talking points, but we are the first state to enact the legislation.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1997 decision threw out a Georgia law requiring candidates for state office to certify they had passed a drug test. In 2000, a federal court in Michigan threw out that state’s attempt to require all welfare recipients to be tested. The rationale behind drug testing, U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts ruled at the time, “could be used for testing the parents of all children who received Medicaid, State Emergency Relief, educational grants or loans, public education or any other benefit from that State.” The decision was upheld on appeal. In 2007, Tennessee considered a senate bill that would have also required welfare recipients to be drug tested. The state’s attorney general, in an opinion, declared the proposed law unconstitutional as “suspicionless drug testing.”

“Things that may be appropriate in the private sector are impermissible when done by government,” Simon said.

–Michael Peltier, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive

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16 Responses for “Federal Suit Filed Against Florida Law Requiring Drug Tests of Welfare Recipients”

  1. mara says:

    Government is not meant to be run like a business.

  2. Yogi says:

    “Things that may be appropriate in the private sector are impermissible when done by government,” Simon said.

    This doesn’t sound like equal application of the law to me. If taxpayers can’t make sure their money doesn’t go to support drugs, then end the program altogether because the program itself is unjust and unconstitutional.

  3. Yogi says:

    Ya think the public at large isn’t fed up with entitlement programs and the whole social justice rant. Ron Paul walked away with the debate last night hosted by msnbc and politico wannabe media outlets. Get used to it.

    http://firstread.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/09/07/7658608-who-do-you-think-won-the-republican-debate-at-the-reagan-library

  4. areyoukidding? says:

    I believe that those who are saying that baving to be drug tested is unfair and violates their constitutional right, are probably the most likely to fail the drug test. If you don’t do drugs, then you should have nothing to worry about, right? If you pass, you get reimbursed so what is all the complaining about? I surely don’t want my money going to those using welfare to support their drug habit. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of people out their who do need help and use the assistance they get in the way it is intended to be used. However, I believe the majority of those don’t. I see it everyday and I’m ashamed to say that I personally know people who don’t use it the way it’s intended to be used. They lie on applications, don’t bother looking for jobs, sit around all day and sell drugs or use drugs all while living off taxpayers money. There should be more requirements in order to receive welfare such as actively looking for a job or enrolling in a college/vocational program, filing for child support. There should be checks in place to make sure recipients aren’t just scamming the government (even though the government scams us daily). I have a job, go to school at night, raise a child as a single parent, and have applied for child support (majority of the time, I don’t get anything though). I have bills just like everyone else, but I don’t qualify for any type of assistance because I’m over the limit by $100 or so. The system itself is unfair just as Yogi said.
    I really believe that those going against this new law are the ones who will be affected by it the most…. because they use drugs.

  5. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    It will be interesting to see how this turns out. Unlike the Georgia law that was thrown out requiring drug tests before becoming a candidate for public office, there is no constitutional right at the federal or state level entitling an individual to any form of welfare. So I fail to see how requiring a drug test in order to receive a benefit, (not an entitlement) runs afoul of either the State or US constitution.
    I think the argument could be made that if the state tried to prosecute those who fail the drug test under criminal drug laws, that would likely run afoul of unlawful search and seizure but as a condition for receipt of a benefit the taxpayers of this state have generously agreed to provide, the can be made to do the chicken dance if the legislature so chooses.

  6. palmcoaster says:

    Stop the waste of our tax funds to benefit Rick Scott private enterprise health/lab business. I want to see more of these federal lawsuits against fraud like Rick Scott…and have him pay for them from his billions made stealing from Medicare while head of Columbia HCA.

  7. Nicole says:

    They should keep the program. I know quite a few people that take advantage of the system & if they were tested for drugs, they would come up positive. And if I know a few people who are too lazy to get up and get a job, and then take advantage of the system, imagine how many more there are. This is not accusing that all who need assistance have a drug problem, but if you don’t have money to pay bills, you don’t have money to buy drugs. The ones with the issue are the ones taking advantage. Get your lazy behind up and get a damn job. The sad thing is, the people who bust their ass to make a living cannot get assistance from the government because they make too much. How is that fair? Pay into the system to give it all away to ungrateful lazy asses! Like I said, I know people who take advantage, but I also know people who use it to get on their feet and then get off the assistance; and those people would have no problem taking a test…

  8. flagler beach native says:

    THEY NEED TO TEST THEM ! THEIR IS A LOT OF THEM THAT WILL NOT GET A JOB THEY DONT WANT A JOB !! THEY JUST WANT TO GET STONED AND HANG OUT AT THE BEACH AND HAVE THE WORKING CLASS FLIP THE BILL FOR THE FOOD AND RENT . LOOK AT THE SECTION 8 HOUSING THEY ALL HAVE NICE CARS AND FANCY RIMS BUT NO JOBS AND WHO IS PAYING THE RENT???? IF THEY CAN BUY THE CARS AND PAY FOR THE RIMS WHY ARE THEY IN SECTION 8 HOUSING??? I CAN SEE HELPING SOMEONE THAT HAS NOTHING BUT WHY PAY THE RENT AND FEED THEM SO THEY CAN DRIVE A FANCY CARS AND HAVE 5000.00 DOLLAR SPINER RIMS .IF THE DRUG TEST THEM YOU WOULD SEE THE FREE HAND OUT BUDGET REDUCE A BUNCH IN ONE YEAR .

  9. Debbie says:

    I personally believe that this should have happened years ago. I have to be drug tested to have my job, with random drug tests at any time. This should be done to welfare recipients as well, also any person who receives disability payments. I personally know people who use these checks to do more than just support themselves; they trade this money for drugs. They can’t wait for the 3rd of the month to come so that they can replenish their drug supplies. I think that anyone that gets any kind of government assistance should be subject to drug test when they get the assistance, and random drug tests anytime thereafter.

  10. Jack says:

    Somewhere in a distant land, a village has lost its idiots.

  11. Jojo says:

    …And the Jews were herded into cattle cars to concentration camps to be exterminated, not drug tested, only because they were born a Jew.

    Be ever mindful of those violating one’s civil liberties because of their circumstance here on Earth. What is Rick Scott’s agenda? Saving money or making money?

  12. Ask yourself says:

    Going in circles

  13. GetThemOut says:

    Why not apply this across the board to anybody that gets a check from the government. So then no one group isn’t singled out, if you get money from the government as a paycheck or a refund or what ever then that would be fair.

  14. Ella says:

    Do you people KNOW that there are those on public assistance trading their food stamps for drugs and using medicaid paid for prescriptions to sell on the street for nearly $20 a pill? And we are violating THEIR rights? Hum….

  15. palmcoaster says:

    Ella, also are you and me and all aware that many, if not most of our elected politicians are selling our hard earned tax payers jobs contracts or handing out our taxes to receive fraudulent grafts, thousands of times higher than a meager welfare or medicaid prescription check? Otherwise look at Rick Scott’s records, made all his billions with Columbia HCA stealing from Medicare and playing dumb afterwards to get the Bush administration, let go on him with no jail. The many politicians like him caught and the many more never caught yet …really need more than a drug test to keep their pays and or jobs provided by us. Better a drop of truth than an river of lies.
    Tendency always to pound the poor and cover up the real thieves.

  16. Anonymous says:

    pee in the cup—-just pee in the cup………

    i work hard for my money—not to have some drug addicted free loaders living off my tax money

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