Even without these legitimate, “special needs,” it is beyond serious dispute — although when has that stopped the ACLU? — that the state has a need to ensure that public welfare dollars are used by the recipients for their intended purpose — buying milk at the corner store — and not dime bags from a corner pusher.
Nevertheless, this entire legal exercise fails to appreciate the state of the law in this area.
First, there is a much lower expectation of privacy in welfare benefits cases. Welfare assistance is a heavily regulated government program in which recipients are routinely required to abide by state and federal regulations and to turn over personal and private information as a condition of receiving their benefits. Failure to play by the state’s rules often disqualifies applicants from receiving taxpayer dollars.
These diminished privacy interests are weighed against Florida’s overriding concern for the safety and well-being of the children, deterring criminal activity and drug addiction, fostering economic self-sufficiency, and ensuring that state funds are used to feed hunger not habits.
Second, the injury claimed here is the violation of a Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. But the Supreme Court has already held that welfare applicants who do not wish to consent to a state’s search requirements are free to decline the search and forfeit the benefits. Forty years ago, the Court considered whether home searches were a reasonable condition for receiving welfare benefits. After looking at all of the valuable public interests served by the searches, the Court concluded that the state’s home-search condition was not only reasonable, but that the plaintiff was free to refuse the search but could not then complain about the benefits’ being withheld.
Likewise, Florida insists that its welfare recipients not abuse drugs on the public’s dime. Being drug-free is a condition of the people’s welfare aid, and the voluntary drug test is the reasonable mechanism used to enforce that condition.
Governor Scott and the Florida legislature enacted sound, sensible public policy aimed at protecting the state’s children and deterring substance abuse that tears at the fabric of our society. It’s not surprising that the ACLU doesn’t agree, but it’s disappointing when federal judges who should know better do not.