A federal appeals court in Atlanta will hear arguments in a legal challenge to a Florida law requiring welfare applicants to pass a drug test, and the ultimate outcome could affect similar efforts in other states.
Florida’s law, adopted in 2011, required welfare applicants to pay for and pass a drug test to receive benefits. It was in effect from July through October last year before it was temporarily blocked by a federal judge who said welfare drug testing may violate a constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Florida has argued that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits are meant to ensure family stability and child welfare during times of financial crisis and to prepare parents to get and keep a job so the assistance is temporary. The state argues drug use by recipients undermines both those goals. “TANF dollars must be spent on TANF’s purposes — protecting children and getting people back to work,” said Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
The ACLU argues drug testing is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches, and filed a lawsuit challenging the law.
After the judge temporarily blocked Florida’s law, that state was force to retroactively pay nearly $600,000 in benefits to thousands of applicants who failed or refused to take the drug test during the four months that the law was in effect. Federal law does not prohibit states from testing welfare recipients for use of controlled substances or from sanctioning recipients who test positive.
“What has held some states up is the constitutional issues around suspicionless, random testing,” NCSL policy analyst Rochelle Finzel said. “States have struggled with getting around some of those constitutional issues and implementing laws so that they’re not violating people’s rights.”
Legislatures in 28 states this year and 36 last year have considered proposed legislation requiring drug testing for at least some welfare recipients, and they will likely be watching to see how far judges are willing to let the laws go.