Citing "Dangerous Precedent," Federal Judge Blocks MI's Plan to Drug Test Welfare Recipients

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
September 5, 2000 12:00 am

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DETROIT, MI — A federal district judge today blocked the country’s first-ever law requiring welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, saying that the policy, enacted by Michigan last year, sets a “dangerous precedent” under the Constitution.

The ACLU of Michigan and the national ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project, which filed a 1999 challenged to the law on behalf of nine welfare recipients and a local rights group, called the decision a welcome check against authoritarianism gone awry.

“The court today reaffirmed the important constitutional principle that all people, rich and poor, are entitled to the same privacy rights,” said ACLU Executive Director Kary L. Moss. “No one should have to choose between their constitutional rights and providing for their families.”

U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts found that the ACLU was likely to succeed on the merits of its claim because the Constitution allows random, suspicionless testing only under very limited circumstances.

The state has said it plans to appeal the order; however, today’s ruling will prevent any drug testing from taking place until all appeals by the state are exhausted.

Rejecting the state’s argument that the desire to move people from welfare to work justified suspending their rights under the Fourth Amendment, Judge Roberts recognized that the Supreme Court has allowed testing in very limited circumstances, such as where public employees operate trains, carry firearms, are involved in the interdiction of controlled substances, or in the case of student athletes.

In a 22-page ruling, Judge Roberts said that “upholding this…suspicionless drug testing would set a dangerous precedent” and that “drug testing under these circumstances must satisfy a special need, and that need must concern public safety.”

If the state is allowed to drug test welfare recipients by virtue of its advocacy on behalf of minors, Judge Roberts reasoned, “that excuse could be used for testing the parents of all children who received Medicaid, State Emergency Relief, educational grants or loans, public education or any other benefit from that State.”

Although the state argued that drug testing was necessary because substance abuse and child neglect are highly correlated, the court noted that the point of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and Family Independence Program is not to prevent child abuse or neglect.

“Michigan stands alone in making its families guinea pigs in a social experiment,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project. “Now a federal judge has found that this dubious plan is likely to be unconstitutional.”

Michigan was the first state in the country to pass a law requiring drug testing of welfare recipients. The law created a pilot program which required drug testing and treatment for welfare applicants in Alpena and Presque Isle Counties, Berrien County and the Joy/Greenfield district of Wayne County. The legislature also provided that the pilot program would be expanded across the state by April 2003.

The program went into effect on October 1, 1999, but was blocked by a Temporary Restraining Order on November 10, 1999.

Those who tested positive would have been required to participate in substance abuse assessment and comply with a required substance abuse treatment plan. Applicants who refused to submit to drug testing would have had their application for assistance denied.

Additionally, after six months — or in April 2000 — 20 percent of adults and minor parent grantees with active cases up for redetermination would have been randomly selected for testing.

The case is Marchwinski et al., v. Family Independence Agency, et al. Attorneys in the case are Moss and Graham Boyd of the ACLU; Prof. Robert A. Sedler of Wayne State University Law School in Detroit and David R. Getto and Cameron R. Getto of Southfield, as cooperating attorneys.

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