Federal Judge in Florida Decisively Rejects Drug Testing for TANF Participants – Lessons from Lebron v. Wilkins

January 20, 2014 by David S. Seltzer

Should it be a crime in Florida to be poor?

As Florida rang in the New Year, U.S. District Judge, Mary Stenson Scriven, issued a 30-page order rejecting the state’s drug test requirements for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) program participants.

Last February, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals made it clear that it was less than pleased with the state's law by issuing an injunction. The 11th Circuit's ruling was long overdue: suspicionless drug testing -- mandatory for TANF program participants -- clearly has created needless obstacles for poor people desperate for a break.

Consider one salient (and sad) example, the case of Lebron v. Wilkins. In the summer of 2011, a 35-year-old FSU student -- who needed to care for a 4-year-old child and a disabled mother -- was thrown to the jaws of the bureaucracy. His fight for Temporary Assistance became a rallying point for opponents of mandatory suspicionless drug testing, who have argued that such laws effectively criminalize the act of being poor.

What's the basic concern that lawmakers had when they crafted this law?

Their worry was that funds might be diverted from Temporary Assistance programs and funneled into illegal operations that could, ultimately, undermine public health and public safety. On the surface, this sounds like a noble, understandable quest.

The state justified its desire for suspicionless drug testing of TANF candidates on the following grounds:

• TANF candidates need to be job-ready -- if they're hooked on drugs, they won't be;
• The TANF program's output should be used to promote family stability and help children;
• The state needs to protect the use of public funds -- that is, to ensure they're being used properly and effectively.

Both Judge Scriven -- and the (uber conservative) 11th Circuit before her -- found flaws with the state's case. Here's a telling quote from the 11th Circuit’s injunction: “The only pertinent inquiry is whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of TANF… we conclude that… the answer… is 'no.'"

In fact, a 1998 study actually found that TANF recipients were less likely than average Floridians to use drugs. Such evidence would seem to smash apart the fundamental premise of the law. Yet despite this evidence (and evidence like it), 29 states around the country have introduced similar laws, which, some might argue, effectively make being poor akin to committing a criminal offense.

Who needs good evidence, such as the 1998 study, when there's a compelling (albeit flawed) story to tell?

Keep scanning the news headlines, as other, similar cases wind up before federal court.

For help coming to terms with your charges, connect with a Florida criminal defense attorney here at Seltzer Law, PA, at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (888-843-3333) for a free consultation, or email our team now.