By Phillip Smith, StopTheDrugWar.Org
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta Tuesday upheld a preliminary injunction blocking Florida's 2011 law requiring welfare applicants to take and pass a drug test. The court held that mandatory, suspicionless drug testing violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription against warrantless searches and seizures.
The decision came in Lebron v. Secretary, Florida Department of Children and Families, in which Navy veteran, single father, and university student Luis LeBron applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds, but refused to be drug tested. His challenge to the law led to a federal district court's preliminary injunction halting the implementation of the law. The 11th Circuit's ruling Tuesday upheld the preliminary injunction.
Federal courts have generally found random, suspicionless drug testing to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment, but have carved out two "special needs" exceptions: for public safety (allowing testing of pilots, truck drivers, and police doing drug enforcement) and children (allowing testing of students involved in athletic or extracurricular activities). The 11th Circuit held that the Florida law did not fall within those exceptions.
The state of Florida "presented no empirical evidence to bolster its special needs argument that suspicionless drug testing of TANF applicants is in any way warranted," the court held. "There is nothing so special or immediate about the government's interest in ensuring that TANF recipients are drug free so as to warrant suspension of the Fourth Amendment."
"Today, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in affirming a preliminary injunction halting Florida's law mandating suspicionless drug testing of TANF applicants, set important precedent, which will hopefully curtail other states from following in Florida's stampede over individuals' Fourth Amendment rights, said Shawn Heller, a co-counsel on the case. "As Judge Jordan succinctly stated in his concurrence, 'constitutionally speaking, the state's position is simply a bridge too far.'" (Heller first joined the case while on staff at the Florida Justice Institute, which argued the case as co-counsel to the ACLU of Florida.)
"The 11th Circuit's decision deals a devastating blow to any state's attempt to impose suspicionless drug testing as a condition of receiving governmental benefits," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, which had filed an amicus brief in the case. "We hope that lawmakers will choose to honor the constitution rather than scapegoat poor people in efforts to address perceived drug problems."
In that amicus brief, the Drug Policy Alliance was joined by the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, Physicians and Lawyers for National Drug Policy, the Legal Action Center, Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, National Employment Law Project, Child Welfare Organizing Project, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
The brief argued that Florida's drug testing scheme does not achieve any of its purported goals of protecting the well-being of children, promoting the employability of person on public assistance and assuring fiscal integrity, and does not pass the "special needs" test that is required to justify otherwise unconstitutional searches by government officials.
The ruling comes as public benefits drug testing measures continue to be introduced -- and sometimes advanced -- in states across the country. Some of those bills attempt to overcome the Fourth Amendment obstacles cited by the appeals court here by attempting to set up a "reasonable suspicion" assessment before mandating drug testing.