U.S. Appeals Court Upholds Injunction Halting Florida's Drug Testing of Welfare Applicants

February 26, 2013 2:01 pm

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ACLU Lawsuit Representing Navy Vet Resulted in Injunction Against Unconstitutional 2011 Law

February 26, 2013

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ATLANTA – Today, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta unanimously affirmed a lower court’s injunction that halted enforcement of Florida’s 2011 law mandating drug tests for all applicants for the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The enforcement of the law had previously been halted by a district judge within months of its going into effect as the result of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The appeals court today concluded that “[t]he simple act of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy.”

The ACLU of Florida, with co-counsel Florida Justice Institute (FJI), challenged Florida’s 2011 law requiring all applicants for the TANF program to submit to a suspicionless drug test in a lawsuit filed on September 6, 2011 in the Middle District of Florida on behalf of Luis Lebron of Orlando. That court ruled that the compelled drug testing is a search under the Fourth Amendment, and issued an injunction barring the state from enforcing the unconstitutional law. The state of Florida appealed that injunction, and today a three judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the lower court was right to halt the law as unconstitutional.

“I am thrilled for Luis and his family, and for the thousands of class members he represents, that yet another court has affirmed that all of us are protected from unreasonable, invasive, suspicionless searches,” stated Maria Kayanan, Associate Legal Director for the ACLU of Florida and lead counsel in the case. “The court’s decision clearly states that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against being subjected to these kinds of invasive searches protects us all, including those of us who are struggling to make ends meet in this tough economy. The state of Florida can’t treat an entire segment of our community like suspected criminals simply because they are poor and are trying to get temporary assistance from the government to support their families.”

Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and single father who is also the sole caretaker of his disabled mother, was a 35-year-old full-time student at the University of Central Florida when he applied for temporary assistance in July 2011 to support his 4-year-old son. When informed that he would be subjected to a humiliating and invasive search without cause or suspicion, Lebron refused to waive his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure and submit to the newly-required drug test.

“I’m really happy that today’s decision confirms what I had believed from the beginning,” stated Lebron. “The state can’t do what it wanted to do to me and my family without reason or suspicion. I’m glad that the court agreed and proud that other families like mine will still be protected.”

In today’s unanimous decision, authored by Judge Rosemary Barkett, the court held that not only had the lower court not overstepped its bounds in issuing the injunction, but that the state had failed to prove that there was any reason to treat poor families in Florida as any more likely to be drug users. “[T]here is nothing inherent to the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a “concrete danger” that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use,” Barkett wrote for the court. In a concurring opinion, Judge Adalberto Jordan stated that, “[c]onstitutionally speaking, the state’s position is simply a bridge too far.”

“The Court today affirmed that the Fourth Amendment protects everyone, including those who need temporary assistance from the government,” stated Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute and co-counsel with the ACLU. “Requiring suspicionless drug testing of TANF recipients is a slippery slope toward requiring drug testing for the receipt of any kind of government benefit, including social security, farm subsidies, and student scholarships. The line must be drawn, and the 11th Circuit did so today.”

“By upholding the lower court’s decision to strike down Florida’s drug testing scheme as an unconstitutional violation of 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the 11th Circuit has prohibited the state from subjecting law-abiding TANF applicants to the indignity of an invasive and unjustified search of their bodily fluids,” said Jason Williamson, staff attorney for the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and co-counsel in the lawsuit. The Criminal Law Reform Project also provided legal assistance in the case. “The 11th Circuit’s decision makes it clear that the state of Florida must respect the constitutional rights of the most vulnerable among us, and may not substitute wholesale, unsupported, and mean-spirited misconceptions of the poor for the individualized suspicion normally required under the 4th Amendment. This case sends a message to all states that, while it may be politically expedient, they may not trample upon the rights of the poor.”

“This is now the second Federal Court that has delivered the news to Governor Scott that shaping public policies on an ugly stereotype that he was so willing to exploit when he was a candidate is unconstitutional,” stated Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “You would have thought that an allegedly-conservative governor would be protecting innocent people from unreasonable government searches – not inflicting them on the people of Florida.”

Since the passage of Florida’s law, Arizona, Missouri, Georgia, Utah and Tennessee have passed laws subjecting citizens applying for government assistance to suspicionless searches. Additional states have passed similar laws, and legislatures in many other states are considering similar laws. In 2011, Governor Scott issued an executive order requiring state employees to be subjected to suspicionless drug tests as well, a decision that was also enjoined by a federal court.

The opinion from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is available here: www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/201115258.pdf

More information on this issue is available at: www.aclu.org/drug-testing-benefits

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