Suspicionless Drug Testing Ruled Unconstitutional; States Shift to Propose Suspicion-Based Laws

By Lavanya Mohan

On December 31, the federal District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued final judgment on the state’s 2011 law mandating suspicionless-based drug testing for TANF applicants. This judgment affirms that the law violates TANF applicants’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, and is consistent with a Michigan court’s ruling against a similar 2003 law in that state. The final judgment indicated that “the State has failed to show that the general welfare of children is at greater risk absent its drug testing or that Florida’s children will be better protected because of mandatory testing of TANF applicants.” 

The implementation and subsequent ruling against the Florida law shows that suspicionless drug testing is unconstitutional, ineffective, and costly. In the four months that Florida administered universal drug testing before an injunction was issued, the state found that  just 2.6 percent of applicants had failed the drug test. The program cost the state an additional $45,780—more than the TANF benefits that would have been paid to individuals who failed the test.

With courts across the country consistently striking down suspicionless drug testing, states should abandon these efforts and avoid costly litigation.   Many state legislators have recognized that and are shifting towards proposing bills to adopt suspicion-based testing, meaning applicants would first be screened to determine the likelihood that they may be using illegal drugs. Only those who are deemed at high risk of drug usage would then be chemically tested.

However, states should take a step back and reconsider whether up-front screening and testing is the best way to address substance abuse issues among families seeking cash assistance.  Even with a preliminary screening, it is still problematic to identify substance abuse over substance usage in the eligibility determination process. Assuming that individuals applying for public assistance are poor because of bad choices such as substance abuse is stigmatizing and costly and adds unnecessary burdens to families seeking assistance.

Many states have long addressed substance abuse issues in TANF in other, more effective ways. Screening is most effective when included as part of an employability assessment—after eligibility has been determined.  Regardless of when screening occurs, the process should lead to treatment, rather than punitive sanctions that discourage recipients from seeking help to overcome addiction. States should waive penalties for individuals who enter treatment but should also ensure treatment is available and that no TANF applicant is sanctioned while waiting for it.

TANF is a lifeline for families in crisis, a temporary support for families combatting poverty.  Suspicionless drug testing laws like those in Florida and Michigan are proven to be ineffective, wasteful and only perpetuate the struggles of low-income people. There’s a better way forward—for families and for states.