By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Gov. Rick Scott’s promise to test welfare recipients for illegal drugs has hit another snag. Judges in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld a previous court ruling that stopped the state of Florida from drug testing Floridians receiving temporary assistance from the state.
Drug testing welfare recipients was one of Scott’s campaign promises, and he has fought challenges to the law tooth and nail. The drug testing requirement also polls well in Florida.
But so far, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has succeeded in stopping the law. The ACLU argues that drug testing welfare recipients without suspicion that each is using illegal drugs violates constitutional search and seizure rights.
This week, the appeals court agreed and upheld the lower court’s decision to stop the drug testing.
The three-judge panel’s unanimous ruling did not address whether the law is valid but agreed with U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven that the plaintiffs were likely to win based on the merits of the suit. The court also agreed that Scott’s lawyers failed to show a need for the law.
Scott’s lawyers argued that drug-testing applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, pushed by the governor in his first year in office, is crucial to ensure the well-being of children whose parents are receiving the public aid.
But “the simple fact of seeking public assistance does not deprive a TANF applicant of the same constitutional protection from unreasonable searches that all other citizens enjoy,” wrote Judge Rosemary Barkett in a 38-page opinion.
Scott’s administration “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 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.”
Scott’s law has also faced other problems, including the fact that there is little evidence to support the governor’s claim that the law would save state government money.
From July through October in Florida — the four months when testing took place before Judge Scriven’s order — 2.6 percent of the state’s cash assistance applicants failed the drug test, or 108 of 4,086, according to the figures from the state obtained by the group. The most common reason was marijuana use. An additional 40 people canceled the tests without taking them.
Because the Florida law requires that applicants who pass the test be reimbursed for the cost, an average of $30, the cost to the state was $118,140. This is more than would have been paid out in benefits to the people who failed the test, Mr. Newton said.
As a result, the testing cost the government an extra $45,780, he said.
And the testing did not have the effect some predicted. An internal document about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, caseloads stated that the drug testing policy, at least from July through September, did not lead to fewer cases.
Scott has vowed to fight for his law — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.
This is one of many legal challenges Scott’s laws have faced, and these challenges are costing the state quite a bit.