(CN) - Florida cannot subject welfare applicants to mandatory drug testing unless they have specific suspicion of drug use, the 11th Circuit ruled.
Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and single father, complained in federal court that the state unconstitutionally denied him financial assistance when he refused to take a drug test. Florida requires testing of applicants for its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Lebron applied for TANF benefits two months after enactment of the drug-testing requirement in May 2011. If approved, he and his son, who was 4 years old at the time, would have been able to collect up to $241 a month in benefits.
He claimed that Florida's rule violates the Fourth Amendment right of TANF applicants to be free from unreasonable searches.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute represented Lebron, who won a preliminary injunction against the drug-testing requirement in the Middle District of Florida.
A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit affirmed from Atlanta on Tuesday.
"Here, the state argues that there is a 'special need' to test TANF applicants because TANF funds should not be used for drugs as drug use undermines the program's goals of moving applicants into employment and promoting child welfare and family stability," Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote for the panel. "But this argument, which assumes drug use, begs the question. The question is not whether drug use is detrimental to the goals of the TANF program, which it might be. Instead, the only pertinent inquiry is whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of TANF recipients when there is no immediate or direct threat to public safety, when those being searched are not directly involved in the frontlines of drug interdiction, when there is no public school setting where the government has a responsibility for the care and tutelage of its young students, or when there are no dire consequences or grave risk of imminent physical harm as a result of waiting to obtain a warrant if a TANF recipient, or anyone else for that matter, is suspected of violating the law. We conclude that, on this record, the answer to that question of whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory suspicionless drug testing is 'no.'" (Emphasis in original.)
Poverty alone does not warrant testing of applicants, according to the 31-page opinion.
"As the District Court found, the state failed to offer any factual support or to present any empirical evidence of a 'concrete danger' of illegal drug use within Florida's TANF population," Barkett wrote. "The evidence in this record does not suggest that the population of TANF recipients engages in illegal drug use or that they misappropriate government funds for drugs at the expense of their own and their children's basic subsistence. The state has presented no evidence that simply because an applicant for TANF benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior."
Florida argued alternatively that TANF applicants give their consent to undergo drug testing, but the appellate panel said this consent could represent mere submission to authority.
In a seven-page concurring opinion, Judge Adalberto Jordan emphasized the court's limited review of the preliminary injunction and whether Lebron is likely to succeed on the merits.
"Finally, I am skeptical about the state's insistence at oral argument that the Fourth Amendment permits the warrantless and suspicionless drug testing of all TANF applicants even if the evidence shows, conclusively and beyond any doubt, that there is 0% drug use in the TANF population," he wrote.
"Constitutionally speaking, the state's position is simply a bridge too far," Jordan added.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott called the court's ruling "disturbing."
"Welfare is 100 percent about helping children," Scott said in a statement. "Welfare is taxpayer money to help people looking for jobs who have children. Drug use by anyone with children looking for a job is totally destructive. This is fundamentally about protecting the wellbeing of Florida families. We will protect children and families in our state, and this decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court."
Meanwhile the ACLU applauded "yet another" decision to denounce "unreasonable, invasive, suspicionless searches."
"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," lead ACLU attorney Maria Kayanan said in a statement. "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."