5 months ago, on May 31, 2011, Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law which requires welfare applicants to undergo drug testing.
A 58-year-old Navy vet and business executive before he entered politics in 2010, Gov. Scott said, “While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction. This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars.” Scott said the drug testing will save Florida $77 million.
Fast forward to October 24, 2011.
The Associated Press reports that a federal judge temporarily blocked Florida’s new law that requires welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits, saying it may violate the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Judge Mary Scriven ruled in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Luis Lebron, a 35-year-old Navy veteran and single father who sought the benefits while finishing his college degree, but refused to take the test.
The drug test can reveal a host of private medical facts about the individual, Scriven wrote, adding that she found it “troubling” that the drug tests are not kept confidential like medical records. The results can also be shared with law enforcement officers and a drug abuse hotline.
Scriven’s injunction will stay in place until she can hold a full hearing on the matter on some as-yet unscheduled date.
More than two-dozen states have also proposed drug-testing recipients of welfare or other government assistance, but Florida was the first state to enact such a law in more than a decade. Should any of those states pass a law and face a court challenge, Scriven’s ultimate ruling would likely serve as a legal precedent.
Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Governor Scott, said, ““Drug testing welfare recipients is just a common-sense way to ensure that welfare dollars are used to help children and get parents back to work. The governor obviously disagrees with the decision and he will evaluate his options regarding when to appeal.”
Earlier this year, Scott also ordered drug testing of new state workers and spot checks of existing state employees under him. But testing was suspended after the American Civil Liberties Union also challenged that policy in a separate lawsuit.
Nearly 1,600 applicants have refused to take the test since testing began in mid-July, but they aren’t required to say why. Thirty-two applicants failed the test and more than 7,000 have passed, according to the Department of Children and Families. The majority of positives were for marijuana.
Under the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, the state gives $180 a month for one person or $364 for a family of four. Those who test positive for drugs are ineligible for the cash assistance for one year, though passing a drug course can cut that period in half. If they fail a second time, they are ineligible for three years.
The ACLU says Florida was the first to enact such a law since Michigan tried more than a decade ago. Michigan’s random drug testing program for welfare recipients lasted five weeks in 1999 before it was halted by a judge, kicking off a four-year legal battle that ended with an appeals court ruling it unconstitutional.
In 2008, Mary Stenson Scriven, 49, was nominated by George W. Bush and readily confirmed by the Senate to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida. The St. Petersburg Times at the time hailed Scriven as “the first black woman to be a federal magistrate in the Middle District of Florida.”
Scriven’s phone number is 407-835-3840.