Welfare Drug Test

Recently, the Governor of Florida signed into action a bill that proposes the compulsory drug testing of all individuals applying for unemployment and welfare in the state of Florida. The state legislature is evidently hoping to either improve the employability of those relying on the state for income, or to limit the distribution of state funds to a manageable level by making the process for receiving them more difficult. This new law, however, drives Florida courts into a mire of controversy. The ACLU has challenged the law, raising the question, “Should welfare recipients be drug tested?”

According to an ACLU challenge, the law violates the 4th amendment rights of citizens applying for welfare. The constitutional restrictions on searches and seizures, according to the ACLU, protect citizens from having to surrender evidence of drug use to the state government. The extension of the 4th amendment to state governments has been upheld by the Supreme Court since 1967’s Mapp vs. Ohio, which applied the 4th amendment via the 14th amendment to all state governments. The ACLU has won a case nearly identical to this before. 

In 1996, a Michigan statute was ruled unconstitutional by federal judge Victoria Roberts, but that ruling was overturned by a partial appeals court. It was then presented to a full appeals court. The full appeals court was evenly split, thereby technically affirming the Roberts ruling. The decision on the case was written such as to discourage its use for precedent. 

The Florida law appears to be an attempt by the ACLU to establish a more concrete ruling. The ACLU will undoubtedly maintain that welfare recipients will have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. Judge Roberts’ ruling was on the basis that those welfare recipients did not meet the “closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless drug testing”, previously reserved for customs agents, or other “sensitive jobs”, and therefore, should not be drug tested. The ACLU remains concerned that “suspicionless drug testing”, if allowed, may eventually extend to all kinds of governmental registration, including driver’s licenses or even tax exemptions.

The state, on the other hand, has quite a bit of precedent with which to back the law. The U.S. Court of appeal has already ruled that those who require federal assistance have “a diminished expectation of privacy.” This means that they are no longer afforded the full protection of the 4th amendment. Also, in many states, welfare recipients are already required to submit to random searches of their homes while they receive benefits. This policy has been upheld in the federal court of appeals. The logical extension of the court’s approbation of this policy is that, in fact, the 4th amendment does not extend to searches conducted on welfare recipients, and that welfare recipients should be drug tested.

The state can also find precedent under U.S. vs. Aukai, where the Supreme Court ruled that airport searches were permissible because they are “administrative searches conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme in furtherance of an administrative purpose…” which could definitely extend to cover the drug testing of welfare recipients.

Whichever way the court rules in this challenge, it will be establishing an important precedent on laws to come, and will further delineate the tipping of the scales between security and liberty in the United States. As drug testing for welfare recipients remains an inflammatory issue nation-wide, the side that wins will gain a sizeable weapon for future battles.