Remember that amazing Daily Show segment a couple years ago in which a correspondent asked Florida Governor Rick Scott to pee into a cup? Governor Scott was dead set on forcing some of the state’s poorest, most vulnerable citizens to submit to humiliating and expensive drug tests before they could receive public benefits. According to the Daily Show correspondent, it should follow then that lawmakers, including Governor Scott – who also cash checks that come from public funds – should receive the same treatment.
Not surprisingly, Governor Scott refused to have his urine tested for drugs. Why? We can only guess, but it’s probably because mandatory and suspicionless drug tests are invasive, offensive, ineffective, and – as of this week – officially unconstitutional.
Citing the 4th Amendment’s protections against unreasonable government searches, a federal District Court handed down a blistering decision in the final hours of 2013 that knocked down a Florida law mandating that all applicants for the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program submit to suspicionless drug tests.
Let’s take a look at just one of the applicants who would have been subject to the now-defunct Florida law. In 2011, Luis Lebron, a 35-year-old Navy veteran and single father, was struggling to make ends meet. Trying to put himself through college while raising a kid and taking care of his aging, disabled mother meant that money was tight. So Mr. Lebron decided—for good reason— to apply for TANF benefits. The state’s response? “Pee into this cup so we can make sure you’re not going to spend the money on drugs.” We’re talking about a whopping $241 per month. When Mr. Lebron refused to be treated like a criminal simply because he was seeking out a bit of financial help, he was denied public assistance. He sued, represented by the ACLU, and because of his fight all Floridians will now be protected from invasive and humiliating searches of their bodily fluids just because they need temporary help putting food on the table.
Governor Scott campaigned hard for this law, making the dubious claim that applicants for public assistance are more likely than the general population to be drug users and therefore that they should be subjected to mandatory and suspicionless searches of their urine. It turned out that so few applicants for public assistance actually tested positive for drugs – during the short period of time during which this law was operational – that Florida ended up shelling out thousands more dollars reimbursing those who tested negative than it saved on public assistance payments to those who tested positive. Let this be a lesson that trying to prove that an entire class of people should be treated like criminals is a costly and futile endeavor.
Sometimes laws, like Florida’s drug testing scheme, that are patently discriminatory manage to make their way onto the books, despite the best efforts of those advocating for fairness and justice. Remember, as another example, the suspicionless, mandatory drug testing of all incoming college students at a public college in Missouri? When our courts work well, they strike down laws like these down in no uncertain terms, as the District Court did in this Florida case.
Here’s hoping 2014 will be a year in which other states trying to impose similarly discriminatory laws will find that the Constitution is standing in their way.