A federal judge in Orlando, Florida ruled Tuesday that the state’s law requiring drug tests from all applicants for public assistance is unconstitutional. According to the New York Times, Judge Mary S. Scriven found that the law — Tea Party Gov. Rick Scott (R)’s signature piece of legislation — violates the U.S. Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
“The court finds there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied,” Scriven wrote.
The decision made permanent an earlier temporary hold she placed on the law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed by Scott in 2011. Scott is refusing to back down, saying in a statement on Tuesday that the law was designed to ensure that children aren’t being raised in homes headed by drug users.
“Any illegal drug use in a family is harmful and even abusive to a child,” read the statement. “We should have a zero tolerance policy for illegal drug use in families — especially those families who struggle to make ends meet and need welfare assistance to provide for their children. We will continue to fight for Florida children who deserve to live in drug-free homes by appealing this judge’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals.”
Reuters reported in 2011 that — during the short time it was allowed to proceed before courts put a stop to it — the testing found a much lower rate of drug use among applicants for public assistance than in the population at large. Less than two percent of applicants tested positive for drugs.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that around eight percent of the general population ages 12 and older report using illicit drugs. The high cost of testing applicants and low rate of denial of benefits ultimately meant that Scott’s plan cost the state more to implement than it saved.
Right-wing legislators have pushed similar laws through in other states, including Georgia, which is currently watching the outcome of the Florida case before proceeding with its own plan to test welfare recipients.
Grant Smith, policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, told the New York Times that Tuesday’s ruling is a milestone.
“This new ruling should give pause,” he said, to legislators who favor this type of testing. “We have seen a number of proposals continue to be put forward across the country, but the writing is on the wall that requiring people to submit to drug testing for no reason other than being poor and in need of assistance is not going to pass constitutional muster. It’s not fair, it’s not cost effective, and it’s unreasonable.”