Federal judge rules Florida's welfare drug testing law unconstitutional

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has promised to appeal the judge's ruling

Published January 2, 2014 4:40PM (EST)

U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven ruled on Tuesday that Florida's 2011 change to its welfare program, which mandates recipients undergo drug testing, violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure and is thus unconstitutional.

In a scathing, 30-page decision, Scriven says "there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied." She went on to dismiss the arguments put forward by lawyers for the state, writing, "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."

Despite the setback, Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, vowed to appeal Scriven's ruling. "Any illegal drug use in a family is harmful and even abusive to a child," Scott said in a statement. "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. 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."

More from the News Service of Florida:

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. Applicants had to pay for the tests, which cost about $35, up front and were to have been reimbursed if they did not test positive.

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 a preliminary 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 later requested a full court review of the case but was turned down.

In her Tuesday ruling, Scriven relied heavily on the 11th Circuit opinion, which cited previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings that restricted urine tests by government agencies to employees working at dangerous jobs or in jobs where schoolchildren were involved.

[h/t Talking Points Memo]

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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