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National Politics

Navy vet, ACLU, sue over drug-testing welfare applicants

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 09:23 PM
TALLAHASSEE -

Luis Lebron sued the state of Florida on Tuesday over its drug-testing policy for all adults applying for welfare assistance.

He is not exactly your stereotypical welfare applicant.

The Orlando resident is trying to finish his accounting studies at the University of Central Florida. A 35-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, he also has sole custody of his four-year-old son and cares for his live-in, mentally disabled mother.

College got more difficult when Lebron's employer downsized him out of a job in 2008. He has been unable to land another job since, he said.

His veteran's benefits exhausted and graduation not expected until December, Lebron finally turned this summer to the state for temporary cash assistance -- but could not stomach the new drug-screening policy.

"It made me feel really bad; I just felt like everything was caving in on me," Lebron said Tuesday. "I felt like, I served my country for four years; doesn't that mean anything anymore? I've worked for pretty good companies. I'm going to school; I'm supposed to graduate. I shouldn't be in this position."

For the record, he said, he does not take illegal drugs. But "it really hit hard when I had to go down there and go through this."

Florida is the only state that mandates drug-testing for welfare applicants regardless of whether there is cause to suspect they are using.

Instead of taking the test, Lebron contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. Tuesday, they filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state, arguing that the test constitutes an "unreasonable search" by the government, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The lawsuit names Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins as defendant, since his agency administers welfare benefits and oversees the drug-testing. The plaintiffs want an immediate injunction and an order forcing DCF to process all cash assistance applications without regard to drug screening.

DCF spokesman Joe Follick deferred comment, saying that the department had not yet received a copy of the complaint. In the past, Follick has stressed that the policy is intended to make sure the money is used to help families.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Mary Scriven, who made headlines last month when she ruled that a state drug trafficking law was unconstitutional because it punishes defendants even if they did not know they were carrying illegal drugs.

 

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Lebron said he contacted the ACLU about the welfare drug-screening after learning from news reports that, so far, only 2 percent of applicants have failed the test since the policy took effect in July.

The ACLU has threatened for months that it would challenge the testing policy, which the state Legislature passed this spring at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, who made it a campaign promise.

That's part of the problem, said Howard Simon, director of the ACLU of Florida, who blasted the governor for "exploiting a stereotype" about poor people on welfare.

When Scott signed the legislation, Simon said, "He didn't say, 'we are now addressing a problem, we are now addressing a need in the state of Florida.' He said he's fulfilling a campaign pledge … there are some governors who lead, and there are some that pander to prejudice for political gain."

Scott argued that welfare recipients use drugs at a higher rate than the general population, and that drug-testing would save the state money. But the test-fail rate seen so far is well below the 8 percent rate of drug use among the general population, as measured by federal health officials.

Welfare applicants must pay the cost of their drug test, but the state reimburses those who test drug-free. Preliminary results of the first month's drug testing suggest the policy will net the state modest savings, though that could be wiped out by the cost of a court battle.

 

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Lane Wright, spokesman for Scott, said those estimates don't account for the unknown number of people who don't apply for benefits because of the drug-screening. It also doesn't take into account, he said, what it costs communities and families when the government hands out cash to drug users.

"It's not just about a dollar figure," Wright said. "It's about making sure taxpayers aren't subsidizing a drug habit."

If that's the case, Simon asked, why doesn't the state drug-test recipients of government-funded contracts and scholarships? "This is public policy based on an ugly stereotype."

DCF figures show little change in the number of welfare applicants in July, compared to the three months prior to drug testing.

A federal court in 2003 ruled that Michigan, which had a suspicionless welfare drug-testing law like Florida's, was unconstitutional.

Asked about the Michigan example, Wright said he did not know the details, but "we're not Michigan."

Scott, Wright said, is sure the policy is on solid legal ground.


cwhittenburg@tampatrib.com (850) 222-8382

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