By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A new Florida law that requires low-income parents to pass drug tests before receiving public aid constitutes an illegal search, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said Wednesday after suing to block it.
By mandating tests for people who are not suspected of drug use, the law violates the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, ACLU representatives and a 35-year-old Navy veteran who refused to take the test said in a conference call with journalists.
"The new law assumes that everyone who needs a little help has a drug problem," said Luis Lebron, a University of Central Florida accounting student who is the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit. "It's wrong and unfair. It judges a whole group of people on their temporary economic situation."
The suit was filed late Tuesday in the District Court in Orlando.
Since July 1, new applicants for temporary cash assistance have had to pay for urine tests for illegal drugs. If the test comes back negative, the fee is repaid by the state. A positive test bars the applicant from receiving benefits for a year.
The test is only required for applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal-state program that helps poor people with children pay for food, shelter and necessities.
The ACLU lawsuit seeks to nullify the law. The group, which includes the Miami-based Florida Justice Institute, also filed a motion to halt the testing until the court rules on the constitutionality of the law.
Lebron, a Navy veteran, is a single father with custody of his 4-year-old son and is scheduled to graduate in December. He was denied benefits when he refused to take the test, which costs between $25 and $45.
Backers of the measure, including Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, say private businesses have been requiring such tests for years and government should be no different.
A survey released Wednesday by the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, an industry trade group, found 57 percent of employers conduct drug tests on all job candidates.
"It's important we make sure taxpayer money isn't going to help pay for someone's drug habit, but that the money is going to help the children for whom it was intended," Scott spokesman Lane Wright said in an email. "That's what this law does."
Critics argue that recipients are being singled out based on a myth that poor people are more likely than others to use illegal drugs. They point out that other government programs such as student loans, food stamps and business grants do not require recipients to be screened for drug use.
So far, the agency set up to monitor the program said that only 2 percent of recipients have tested positive for illegal drugs, a failure rate that is below that of the general Florida population.
"It's an ugly public policy based on stereotypes and talking points," said Howard Simon, ACLU Florida's executive director.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found in a 2009 survey that about 8.7 percent of the population aged 12 or older had used illicit drugs in the previous month.
Generally, the courts have allowed suspicionless drug testing only when public safety is at risk, such as for armed officers or railroad workers who operate heavy equipment.
The Supreme Court in a 1997 decision threw out a Georgia law requiring candidates for state office to certify they had passed a drug test. In 2000, a federal court in Michigan threw out that state's attempt to require all welfare recipients to be tested.
"Things that may be appropriate in the private sector are impermissible when done by government," Simon said.
(The case is 6:11-CV-01473-MSS-DAB)
(Editing by Jane Sutton)