A federal appeals court today struck a blow to a 2011 Florida law requiring drug tests for all applicants to the state’s welfare program. The unanimous decision from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals also applies to a nearly identical bill signed last year by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. The decision cuts to the heart of a Republican-led efforts to conflate poverty and unemployment with drug abuse and sends a message to other states that the suspicionless testing laws will not stand.
In the years since 2010, conservative state legislators introduced a rash of bills to require applicants to state welfare, unemployment insurance and food stamp programs to submit to drug tests. Advocates of the bills argued that the laws were necessary to protect children from the harms of drug addicted parents and to interrupt a pattern of drug use among poor and unemployed people.
But the appeals court ruled today to uphold a 2011 decision by an Orlando district court to enjoin the Florida law on the grounds that it violates the 4th amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
"The simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy," the court wrote in its ruling today.
The case was brought by the ACLU on behalf of Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and college student who is raising his children alone while also caring for his aging mother. He applied for welfare assistance from the state of Florida but was barred from help when he refused to take the drug test.
The Florida drug testing law had a short life. But in the few months it was in effect before a court blocked it, nearly 98 percent of welfare applicants passed the test. Today’s Eleventh Circuit decision leaves the injunction in place and sends the Florida law back to the district court to rule on the law.
Georgia, for its part, waited until today’s ruling to determine whether to implement it’s own testing program, which was modeled on Florida’s. The Eleventh Circuit court has jurisdiction over Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and the decision today sends a clear message that the Georgia law would not survive legal challenge.
"We are grateful to the Court for their ruling today that essentially renders Georgia’s law dead in the water," said Gerry Weber, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, which planned to challenge the Georgia law if it went into effect.
Despite repeated court decisions finding bills like the ones in Florida and Georgia unconstitutional, other states continue to consider their own versions. At least 8 states have already considered welfare drug testing requirements this year.