Drug Testing For Welfare Recipients: Constitutional Violation or Public Necessity?

The Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures prohibits suspicionless drug testing for welfare applicants.

Photo by Micah Baldwin (Flickr)

Drug testing is now prohibited for welfare recipients residing in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that  the government does not have a strong enough interest to justify giving suspicionless drug tests to welfare applicants.  This and other similar rulings have called into question whether drug testing for welfare applicants is a violation of those people’s Fourth Amendment rights, or if drug testing in this situation is something the government has a strong interest in pursuing.

The most recent case on this issue, Lebron v. Secretary of Florida Department of Children & Families, was appealed from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether was the state permitted to require individuals to undergo drug testing as a condition to receive government benefits.  The Eleventh Circuit announced its ruling on December 3, 2014.

In 2011, Luis Lebron, a veteran of the United States Navy, college student, single father, and caretaker for his disabled mother and young child, was required to take a drug test as a condition of receiving government assistance.  Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program allowed for temporary assistance from the federal government to assist needy families with financial and job search assistance.  Lebron otherwise met all of the requirements to receive aid, but refused to pay for and submit to the mandatory drug testing.  When he failed to take the test, he was denied benefits.

Lebron filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Children & Families claiming the requirement was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.  After hearing the case in 2013, the District Court enjoined the State of Florida from requiring otherwise qualified individuals to submit to a “suspicionless drug test” as a condition of receiving government funded monetary assistance.  Florida agreed to halt drug testing as to all applicants for welfare until the litigation was resolved.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit stated that to establish a limited and exceptional circumstance that would justify the suspension of the protections of the Fourth Amendment, the government must show that there are “special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement” that would make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impractical, and that these special needs are substantial.  The court found that this situation does not warrant a substantial special need for drug testing to receive government benefits, and therefore Florida’s requirement is unconstitutional as an unreasonable search and violation of individuals’ Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The argument that drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable searches and seizures has merit, but what about the substantial need to prevent the government’s money from being used for illegal purposes which contradict the goals of  government assistance programs?

The ruling in Lebron has caused much dispute.  The argument that drug testing violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable searches and seizures has merit, but what about the substantial need to prevent the government’s money from being used for illegal purposes which contradict the goals of  government assistance programs?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects United States citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.  A search must be valid, and consent may be given to search, but such consent must be voluntary.  Voluntariness is to be determined by the totality of the circumstances.  As described by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Vongxay, a court considers five factors including whether the defendant was in custody, whether the defendant had been notified of the right not to consent, and whether the defendant had been told that a search warrant could be obtained.  The Fourth Amendment’s scope of protection extends beyond just criminal investigations, but to the privacy, dignity, and security of persons against certain arbitrary and invasive acts by officers of the government.

Urine drug tests are considered searches under the Fourth Amendment.  For searches to be reasonable, generally, they must be conducted with individualized suspicion.  When searches are not conducted with reasonable suspicion, they are called suspicionless searches, and are often considered unreasonable for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment.  The U.S. Supreme Court in Chandler v. Miller established that there is a “closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless searches,” including a case where the suspicionless search serves a special governmental need beyond that of normal law enforcement.  When this need exists, the reviewing court balances the weight of the government interest against the expectation of privacy the individual has from such a search in order to determine whether the search is reasonable.

An individual’s unique qualities may justify suspicionless drug testing in certain situations.  For example, a university may have an interest in deterring drug use among students in programs that pose significant safety risk to others.  In Barrett v. Claycomb, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri upheld suspicionless drug tests for students who were enrolled in Aviation Maintenance, Electrical Distribution Systems, Industrial Electricity, Power Sports, and CAT Dealer Service Technician programs.  The court used three factors to conduct the balancing analysis between the special need of the university and the students’ reasonable expectation of privacy: the nature of the privacy interest, the character of the intrusion of the drug testing policy, and the nature and immediacy of the university’s concern and the value of the policy.

The issue of whether consent to search is valid is another common question in suspicionless drug testing cases.  In Ferguson v. City of Charleston, the U.S. Supreme Court examined the City of Charleston’s policy of drug testing pregnant women receiving care at the Medical University of South Carolina (“MUSC”) so that women whose urine tested positive for cocaine could be encouraged to get substance abuse counseling.  The Court held that regardless of how noble the intention of the policy, the City did not prove that the consent to the urine test was obtained validly.  The women’s decision to present themselves for treatment at MUSC was not voluntary consent to be tested for drugs while under the care of the facility.

Many argue it is unfair to ask taxpayers to support a program that provides money to people who may use that money for illegal drug use.

After considering the Fourth Amendment argument, it is important to understand the argument made by proponents of suspicionless drug testing for applicants for government assistance.  Many argue it is unfair to ask taxpayers to support a program that provides money to people who may use that money for illegal drug use.  Others say there is a valid state interest in providing an incentive for people to stop using drugs, and if a drug test was required to receive government assistance, many may be disinclined to partake in illegal drug use.  Reducing drug use would reduce the potential for children to be exposed to illegal substances, prevent child abuse related to or caused by drug use, reduce the costs of health and crime risks associated the with illegal activity of using drugs.

Based on these arguments, several states have considered requiring drug tests before people can qualify for food stamps, public housing, unemployment benefits, and other government assistance.  Only eight states have passed such laws, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah.  In Congress, a bill that would require all states to deny Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program (TANF) assistance to anyone who fails a drug test and to anyone convicted of a drug-related crime is currently stalled.

While it is permissible for students in particular fields of study that are more dangerous or cause a greater public concern to be drug tested because of the nature of their field of study, it is not permissible for the government to require a person to be drug-free and to pass a drug test before receiving financial assistance from the government.  An individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures outweighs the public concern and public necessity arguments.

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About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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