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United States: Court Enjoins Florida Law Requiring Welfare Recipients to Take Drug Tests

(Nov. 9, 2011) The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida has preliminarily enjoined a Florida law that required all applicants for certain types of government assistance to submit to drug testing. The court ruled that the law likely violates the right under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to be free of unreasonable searches by the government.

Plaintiff Luis Lebron applied to the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) for benefits under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, to support himself and his minor child. Under a Florida law enacted in 2011, each applicant who applies for TANF must take a drug test. Applicants whose tests are positive are rendered ineligible for TANF benefits for one year, although they can reapply after six months if they complete a substance abuse treatment program. The law requires DCF to share positive test results with other government agencies, including law enforcement.

Lebron filed suit, arguing that requiring TANF applicants to submit to a drug test violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches.

The court rejected Florida's argument that the collection of urine was not a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes, citing established Supreme Court case law. It also rejected Florida's argument that the searches are constitutional because they are consensual, citing the doctrine of “unconstitutional conditions,” which provides that the government may not deny a benefit on a basis that infringes constitutionally protected interests. The court found no evidence in the record of a “special need” of the state to justify the Fourth Amendment intrusion of drug testing of all TANF applicants.

Finding that Lebron was substantially likely to prevail in his claim that the law is unconstitutional, the district court preliminarily enjoined enforcement of the law. (Lebron v. Wilkins, No. 6:11-cv-01473-Orl-35DAB (Oct. 24, 2011).)