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- 2014 - January - 2nd -

Drug tests for welfare recipients ruled unconstitutional

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

A federal judge ruled that a 2011 law requiring welfare applicants to undergo drug tests is unconstitutional, striking a blow to Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over the controversial tests.

Scott quickly said he would appeal U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven’s Tuesday ruling, the latest defeat for the governor in a drawn-out battle over drug testing some of the state’s poorest residents.

Scriven ruled that the urine tests violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.

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

Scott, who used the mandatory drug tests as a campaign issue, insists that the urine tests are needed to make sure poor children don’t grow up in drug-riddled households.

“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.

“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,” the governor added.

At Scott’s urging in 2011, the Legislature passed the law requiring all applicants seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” — the “poorest of the poor” — to undergo the urine tests.

Within months after the law was passed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida sued the state on behalf of Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and single father. In October 2011, Scriven issued an order putting the law on hold.

Scott appealed the decision but in February, an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel agreed with Scriven, ruling that the drug tests amounted to an unreasonable search by government.

Scott’s lawyers argued that welfare recipients should be considered a “special interest” exception to the Fourth Amendment. The tests are needed to ensure the participants’ job readiness, help the social welfare program meets its goals and guarantee that the public money is used for its intended purpose and not spent on drugs.

The state failed to show that welfare recipients used drugs with more frequency than the rest of the population, Scriven found. But even if it had, creating a special class of people who would be exempt from the constitutional protections could be dangerous, she wrote.

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