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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott’s callous and condescending plan to drug-test welfare recipients has been demolished by a federal appeals court.

In a 54-page rebuke, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vigorously upheld a lower court’s ruling that it’s unconstitutional to make welfare applicants undergo warrantless and “suspicionless” drug screens, as mandated in a law championed and signed by Scott.

“The State has failed to establish a demonstrable or peculiar drug-use problem among (welfare applicants),” the three-judge panel said unanimously. “If anything, the evidence extant suggests quite the opposite.”

Scott’s law, it concluded, “offends the Fourth Amendment,” which protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure.

The opinion was written by Judge Stanley Marcus, not exactly a raging liberal. A former organized-crime prosecutor and U.S. Attorney in Miami, Marcus was nominated for the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan.

Although experts had warned that Florida’s broad drug-testing statute wouldn’t survive a court challenge, Scott and the Republican-led Legislature sanctimoniously charged ahead. Now the state’s clanking legal appeals are costing taxpayers a fortune.

The man who upended the law was Luis W. Lebron, a Navy veteran and college student in Orlando. At the time the ACLU filed suit on Lebron’s behalf, he was the single father of a young child, and was also taking care of his disabled mother.

He’d applied for benefits under a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The maximum amount he could have received was about $241 monthly over a cumulative period not to exceed 48 months.

At first Lebron consented to a urine test, but later changed his mind. The Department of Children and Families then said he was ineligible for benefits.

The controversial drug law was in effect less than four months before a court intervened in 2011. The state insisted it had the right to require urine tests (paid for by the applicants themselves) in order to protect their children.

As witnesses it offered a Georgetown University psychiatrist who had done some reading on the subject, and two DCF employees who told anecdotes about possible drug use among TANF recipients.

One of the workers said he had “personally detected the odor of marijuana on applicants.” The other said he often met welfare cases who had slurred speech or bloodshot eyes.

That was basically Scott’s whole case. It was shamefully weak.

Marcus ruled that the state “presented no evidence that children of TANF parents face a danger or harm from drug use that is different from the general threat to all children in all families.”

He pointed to a 2000 study done by DCF itself, called the Demonstration Project. Only 335 out of 6,462 TANF applicants tested positive for drugs.

That trend of relatively low usage was “altogether consistent” with data collected 11 years later, after Scott’s law took effect. Of 4,046 TANF applicants who gave urine samples, a measly 2.67 percent tested positive.

By contrast, the rate for the general population is 9.2 percent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

About a third of those who started a TANF application didn’t finish it, and never took the drug screen. There’s no way to determine if they were substance users, couldn’t afford the test — or were simply offended by the idea of it.

“Citizens,” wrote Marcus, “do not abandon all hope of privacy by applying for government assistance.”

In another case arising from the governor’s urine crusade, the 11th Circuit also struck down his initiative to randomly drug-test state employees for pot, meth, coke, opiates and PCP.

Among those who would have been excluded from that dope screen were Scott himself and all 160 elected members of the House and Senate. Several times I’ve offered to pay the cost for each of them to pee in a cup and send it to a lab, yet there’s no enthusiasm in Tallahassee for that proposal.

Why not? An impaired public official can do way more harm than an impaired unemployed person.

If the governor and legislators are so worried about drug use by others, they should stand up (or sit down) and do the right thing.

Set an example by giving a sample.

If you can’t prove that you’re smart, at least prove that you’re clean.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr