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Federal appeals court upholds order blocking Florida welfare drug testing law

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] that a lower court was correct in blocking a Florida law [Executive Order 11-58, PDF] that had required welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits. The US District Court for the Middle District of Florida [official website] ruled [JURIST report] that the law violated applicants' Fourth Amendment [text] protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The appeals court agreed, finding the state "failed to establish a substantial special need to support its mandatory suspicionless drug testing." They went on to write:

The question is not whether drug use is detrimental to the goals of the TANF program, which it might be. Instead, the only pertinent inquiry is whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of TANF recipients when there is no immediate or direct threat to public safety, ... or [when] anyone else for that matter, is suspected of violating the law. We conclude that, on this record, the answer to that question of whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory suspicionless drug testing is "no."
The appeals court continued, "The simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive [an] applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute [advocacy websites] filed the challenge [JURIST report] in September 2011. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Luis Lebron, a 35-year-old Orlando resident, Navy veteran and full-time University of Central Florida student who applied for Temporary Cash Assistance to help support his four-year-old son. Lebron meets all the criteria for aid but refused to submit to the drug test on the principle that it is an infringement of his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. The complaint notes that the US Supreme Court has held that suspicionless drug testing by the government is an unreasonable search that violates the Fourth Amendment, the only exceptions being for substantial public safety concerns and students in the public school system. Commentators have advocated that removing the drug-test requirement for welfare recipients [JURIST op-ed] is the most appropriate course of action.

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