Civil Liberties Victory Stops Welfare Drug Tests

By Tony O'Neill 10/27/11

The American Civil Liberties Union gets a law mandating drug tests for welfare applicants thrown out in a Florida court.

No more need to fill the cup Photo via

Heartening news from Florida this week: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has struck a decisive blow in court against a law forcing everyone applying for welfare in the Sunshine State to submit to a drug test. The law was signed by Florida Governor Rick Scott this June to "help to prevent misuse of Florida tax dollars" by drug users. The idea that Scott pushed this law to eliminate fraud is galling, given his history of defrauding Medicare and Medicaid as CEO of massive hospital chain Columbia/HCA. (He was forced to resign from that position, and the federal government levied the biggest-ever fine of its kind against Scott’s company—a whopping $1.7 billion.) Florida's drug-testing was pursued even though just 2% of the welfare recipients tested positive for illegal drugs—the national average is 8%. It seems that Rick Scott’s understanding of the Fourth Amendment is about as shaky as his grasp of bookkeeping, at least according to US District Judge Mary Scriven, who slapped down the “unconstitutional” law. Florida’s own study had thoroughly “debunked the assumptions of the State, and likely many laypersons, regarding TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] applicants and drug use,” noted Judge Scriven. Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute, co-counsel with the ACLU, declared: “This should send a message to all lawmakers that the Fourth Amendment protects everyone.”

The crucial test case was that of 35-year-old US Navy veteran Louis Lebron, a single father who goes to college full-time and cares for his disabled mother. When his veteran’s benefits ran out he found himself barely scraping by on student loans and grants, so he applied to Florida’s TANF program for assistance. He qualified for food stamps and Medicaid, but was astonished to find that to process his claim he'd have to submit to a drug test—and pay for it himself. He was also told that any negative urine sample results would be shared with Florida’s Child Abuse Hotline. There's no suggestion that Lebron is a drug user, but he was outraged by the attempt to invade his privacy. He contacted ACLU, which took on his case and won. The scandalous law explicitly asserted that drug users don't have the same human rights as non-drug users, judging people's characters by the content of their urine and subjecting needy citizens to blatant constitutional violations.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.