Victory for Privacy as Deadline for Florida to Appeal Welfare Urinalysis Case to Supreme Court Expires

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
March 4, 2015 4:01 pm

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Gov. Rick Scott’s drug testing crusade comes to an end as state decides not to challenge appeals court ruling finding mandatory suspicionless government searches of TANF applicants unconstitutional

March 4, 2015

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MIAMI, FL – A years-long battle over the right of poor Floridians to be free from invasive government searches ended in victory today as Florida officials decided not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a federal court ruling striking down a law mandating that applicants for the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program submit to suspicionless drug tests.

The ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit challenging the law, championed by Florida Governor Rick Scott, shortly after it went into effect in 2011, and a federal court declared it unconstitutional shortly thereafter, holding that the law violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable government searches. In December 2014, a three-judge panel at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s final ruling. The deadline for the state to submit a petition for writ of certiorari appealing that decision to the United States Supreme Court was March 3.

Today, the ACLU of Florida received confirmation from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office that the Solicitor General did not appeal the ruling before yesterday’s deadline. As a result, the 11th Circuit ruling will remain in effect.

Responding to the news, ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon stated:

After nearly four years of litigation, this ugly attack on poor Floridians has finally come to an end. The 11th Circuit’s strong affirmation that no group of people can be summarily forced to submit to invasive and humiliating examinations of their bodily fluids at the whim of the government, even those seeking temporary assistance to make ends meet, will stand.

This law was always about scoring political points on the backs of Florida’s poor and treating them like suspected criminals without suspicion or evidence. It not only offended the dignity of families who are struggling to get by and need temporary assistance, but it also offended Constitutional protections against invasive government searches.

Jason Williamson, Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, stated:

Given that both the district court and the 11th Circuit consistently rejected the state’s arguments in this case, we welcome the decision to forego a final appeal. Florida’s TANF applicants can now be confident that they will not be subjected to a suspicionless drug testing scheme that was not only unconstitutional but also unfairly targeted at low-income families.

Randall Berg, Executive Director of the Florida Justice Institute, and co-counsel with the ACLU, stated:

The 4th Amendment is alive and well in Florida despite the Governor’s best efforts to the contrary.

The ACLU’s 2011 lawsuit challenging the law was part of a broader campaign responding to assaults on a wide variety of personal freedoms in the early years of the Scott administration, from voting rights to free speech to religious liberty. In a separate case in which the ACLU of Florida represents AFSCME Council 79, an executive order by Gov. Scott requiring across-the-board suspicionless urinalysis for state employees has also been found unconstitutional. That case is currently pending before a federal judge in Miami.

The cases have national ramifications — since the passage of the Florida law and Gov. Scott’s executive order, many states have enacted laws mandating drug testing for applicants and recipients of certain state benefits, and have looked to the ACLU of Florida’s lawsuits to determine whether the constitution permits broad, suspicionless drug testing like the program which the 11th Circuit struck down.

Both the policies themselves and the legal fight to defend them have been costly to Florida taxpayers. A 2014 investigation of the state’s legal costs found that the state has racked up over $300,000 in legal fees and costs in the TANF case alone. Additionally, a review of the TANF mandatory urinalysis program found that the state of Florida spent more money reimbursing individuals for drug tests than the state saved on screening out the extremely small percentage of those who tested positive during the four months before a lower court first halted the law. More information is available here:

From the 2011 filing until her retirement shortly following the 11th Circuit’s December ruling, ACLU of Florida Associate Legal Director Maria Kayanan was lead counsel in the case. Co-counsel in the case were Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute and Jason Williamson, Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

The 11th Circuit’s ruling striking down the law is available here:

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