Atlanta’s federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a temporary halt to Florida’s drug-testing of would-be welfare recipients.
A three-judge panel emphasized it was not ruling on the constitutionality of the law—which is similar to one passed last year in Georgia—but it strongly hinted the law violates the Constitution’s guarantee against unreasonable government searches.
"There is nothing so special or immediate about the government’s interest in ensuring that [welfare] recipients are drug free so as to warrant suspension of the Fourth Amendment," wrote Judge Rosemary Barkett of the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She was joined by Circuit Judge Aldaberto Jordan and, sitting by designation, U.S. District Judge James Randal Hall of the Southern District of Georgia.
"Constitutionally speaking, the state’s position is simply a bridge too far," Jordan wrote in a concurrence.
A spokesman for Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who signed Georgia’s drug-test bill into law, said the state is not going to react quickly to the decision. Georgia’s law has not been implemented yet.
"The Georgia law has similarities but also differences with the Florida law," said Brian Robinson. "We’ll have to study the ruling to see how it affects our state’s statute."
Sponsors of last year’s House Bill 861, Reps. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, and Stephen Allison, R-Blairsville, could not be reached.
An opponent of the bill, Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, said by email that the appeals court "sent a very strong signal that the law offends the Fourth Amendment."
"As a result," said Holcomb, a lawyer, "I suspect the Georgia law is dead."
Gerald Weber at the Southern Center for Human Rights, who last year said his group would challenge Georgia’s law if it is implemented, said in a press release Tuesday that the Eleventh Circuit decision "essentially renders Georgia’s law dead in the water."
Florida passed its drug-testing requirement in May 2011, and it was challenged by a Navy veteran and single parent, Luis W. Lebron.
He passed the financial and circumstantial requirements to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). When he refused to take the required drug test, the state rejected his application for assistance.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Lebron sued the state on behalf of himself and other applicants for TANF in a proposed class action lawsuit, saying the measure violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
U.S. District Judge Mary Scrivens of Tampa issued a preliminary injunction saying Lebron showed "a substantial likelihood of success on the merits" of his claim.
Florida appealed, and the court heard arguments in November. In their opinions Tuesday, the judges—Barkett and Jordan are from Florida—impressed upon readers that the court was making no judgment as to the constitutionality of Florida’s law.
"We do not resolve the merits of the constitutional claim but instead address whether the district court abused its discretion in concluding that Lebron is substantially likely to succeed in establishing that Florida’s drug testing regime for TANF applicants violates his Fourth Amendment rights," Barkett wrote for the panel.
But Barkett, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, gave the law a dim review.
"While we recognize that Florida has a significant interest in promoting child welfare, the State has presented no evidence that the general welfare of the children in the TANF program is at greater risk absent its drug testing," she wrote.
"The only known and shared characteristic of the individuals who would be subjected to Florida’s mandatory drug testing program is that they are financially needy families with children. Yet, there is nothing inherent to the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a ‘concrete danger’ that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use."
Jordan, a pick of President Barack Obama, also cautioned that the court "is not making any definitive legal pronouncements about the ultimate constitutionality" of Florida’s drug-testing statute. The court is merely agreeing that based on "an undeveloped record" the lower court was correct to halt the drug-testing of would-be welfare recipients, he added.
Hall is an appointee of President George W. Bush.
Florida will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, Governor Rick Scott said in a press release.
"The court’s ruling today is disturbing. Welfare is 100 percent about helping children. 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," the release said. "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."
The ACLU of Florida praised the decision.
"I am thrilled for Luis and his family, and for the thousands of class members he represents, that yet another court has affirmed that all of us are protected from unreasonable, invasive, suspicionless searches," the ACLU’s Maria Kayanan, the lead counsel in the case, said in a press release.
According to the opinion, an applicant has to front the cost for the drug test before he or she would begin receiving the $241 per month benefit from TANF. But the cost is reimbursed.
If the applicant tests positive for controlled substances, the person is ineligible for one year to get the benefit. If the applicant finishes a substance abuse program and takes another test, the applicant can get the benefit. In instances in which the applicant fails, the dependent child can obtain TANF benefits if the adult designates another appropriate adult to manage the money.
The case is Lebron v. Secretary, Florida Department of Children and Families, No. 11-15258.
Kathleen Baydala Joyner contributed to this story.