Drug Tests for Welfare Applicants Ruled Unconstitutional

Kathleen Jercich

On December 31, a federal judge struck down Florida Gov. Rick Scott's pet piece of legislation: mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants. District Court Judge Mary S. Scriven determined that the requirement violated applicants' constitutional protection against illegal searches.  When Florida lawmakers first passed the measure two years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida quickly challenged it in court on behalf of a single father (and military veteran) who refused to take the test when he applied for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Judge Scriven granted an injunction temporarily stopping the law's enforcement in October 2011. Her ruling on Tuesday makes the injunction permanent.  Though Gov. Scott argued that obligatory testing was necessary to protect children, the New York Times reports that welfare applicants are actually highly unlikely to be illegal drug users: State data in Florida also showed that the measure produced few results. Only 108 out of 4,086 people tested—2.6 percent—were found to have been using narcotics. State records showed that the requirement cost more money to carry out than it saved. But as the country emerged from the recession, numerous states, powered by the strength of Republicans in many legislatures, sought to make welfare or unemployment checks contingent on drug testing. That is despite a 2003 federal court ruling in Michigan that struck down drug testing for welfare recipients because it amounted to an illegal search. As Raw Story points out, that 2 percent failure rate is far below that of the general population. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 8.7 percent of Americans older than 12 reported using illegal drugs.  Still, Gov. Scott maintains that he will appeal Judge Scriven's decision, saying in a statement that illegal drug use in a family, especially one struggling to make ends meet, is tantamount to child abuse.

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Kathleen Jercich is an assistant editor at In These Times. Her work has appeared in Sacramento News and Review, BUST Magazine and on The Rumpus and Bitch Media blogs.
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