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Victory in Florida: No Illegal Drug Testing For Welfare

Maria Kayanan,
Associate Legal Director,
ACLU of Florida
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October 25, 2011

On Monday we got some great news in Florida: following an ACLU lawsuit, the state will no longer be allowed to make people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) take a drug test in order to get the assistance they need.

A month ago, four-year-old Jordan Lebron sat in a courtroom in Florida for three hours, quietly coloring and playing with toy cars while his father, Luis, sat with us at counsel table watching and listening to the judge’s questions and the lawyers’ answers.

Luis, 35, is a U.S. Navy veteran and a single father who fought to establish paternity of his son. He goes to college full-time and cares for his disabled mother. Recently, his veterans’ benefits ran out; he was living day to day on student loans and grants, teetering on the brink of poverty, so he asked the state of Florida for a helping hand and qualified for food stamps and Medicaid.

Luis also qualified for TANF, but there was a catch.

Under a new Florida law, Luis had to pay for and pass a drug test before he could get TANF. He would have to give a sample of his urine to a lab and acknowledge that the state would share any negative results with Florida’s Child Abuse Hotline. Luis knew he’d test negative because he doesn’t use illegal drugs, but that wasn’t the point: he also knew that he shouldn’t have to submit to an invasive search to prove it.

Luis had seen a news story about the drug testing where the reporter mentioned that the ACLU of Florida believed, as he did, that the law mandating drug tests were unconstitutional. So he picked up the phone and within a week the ACLU of Florida filed suit on his behalf.

During a break in that three-hour hearing last month, while Jordan climbed up on his father’s lap, I told Luis how unusual it was for a four-year-old to sit quietly for so long. Luis smiled and answered, “He’s used to going to church with me.”

I could see how Jordan made the connection to church. There was the judge in her black robe, sitting higher up than any of us. Jordan listened to the call and response — the Judge’s questions, our answers. It wasn’t church of course — it was a courtroom — a house of law as opposed to religion.

Jordan didn’t know that his father, the other ACLU lawyers and I were there for him — asking the court to protect everyone’s rights, including his.

Yesterday, four weeks after the hearing in which Jordan sat so patiently, an email from the federal court’s electronic filing system popped up in my inbox. A click on the link led to the court’s 37-page opinion, a comprehensive affirmation of core Fourth Amendment values that Luis Lebron has the right to be free from unreasonable government searches.

The court reaffirmed that testing urine for drugs is a search, that application for a public benefit cannot depend on an unconstitutional condition, and that the state of Florida had fallen woefully short of establishing any need to conduct suspicionless testing.

The judge’s order also chastised the Florida legislature for failing to heed lessons it should have learned in a state-commissioned pilot study of TANF recipients in Florida: they are no more likely to use illegal drugs than the population at large.

The ugly stereotypes that warp public perception of welfare recipients have no basis in fact or science. Those who need help are no different than you or me. They are not children of a lesser god, exiled to a Fourth-Amendment-free zone to be treated like suspected criminals.

If you’d ever had the pleasure of meeting Luis Lebron or Jordan, you’d know that already.

Today, thanks to Jordan’s dad, the drug testing information is gone from the temporary assistance website and Luis and Jordan Lebron have officially been deemed eligible for the temporary help they need.

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