MIAMI — The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to block Florida's new law requiring new welfare recipients to pass a drug test, filing the lawsuit on behalf of a Navy veteran who was denied assistance to help care for his 4-year-old son because he refused to take the test.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court.
"The law assumes that everyone who needs a little help has a drug problem," said Luis Lebron, 35, who had applied for the state money to help care for his son while he finishes college. "It's wrong and it's unfair. It judges a whole group of people based on their temporary economic situation."
The ACLU, which is also challenging a mandate by Gov. Rick Scott requiring drug testing for state employees, says the law is unconstitutional – an argument that federal judges have agreed with before – because it constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure.
Lawmakers in more than two-dozen states have proposed drug-testing recipients of welfare or other government assistance, but the ACLU said Florida is the first to enact the law.
The Department of Children and Families, which oversees the program, has tested 1,500 to 2,000 recipients since mid-July. About 2.5 percent of those tested positive and about 2 percent declined to take the test, according to state officials.
State officials have previously said they are still tabulating numbers to determine how much money the state has saved.
Scott said during his campaign that the measure would save $77 million, but it's unclear how he arrived at those figures.
Applications for the welfare program, known as Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, have decreased significantly since December, but state officials said it's likely because residents have reached their 48-month benefit limit, not because they were deterred by the drug test.
Under the program, the state gives $180 a month for one person or $364 for a family of four. The law requires recipients to foot the bill for the drug test, which costs $30 to $35 per test. Those who test negative are reimbursed with their first payment.
No other state currently requires drug testing because it's difficult to get around arguments that the tests violate the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches. Michigan's random drug testing program for welfare recipients lasted five weeks in 1999 before it was halted by a judge, kicking off a four-year legal battle that ended with an appeals court ruling it unconstitutional.
"We're not Michigan," said Lane Wright, a spokesman for the governor's office.
"The motivation behind it is to make sure that taxpayer money isn't subsidizing somebody's drug habit and to make sure the money is going to children to whom it was intended."
ACLU attorneys said the law is a logistical mess because some counties, including Baker, DeSoto, Madison and Union, do not have a facility to conduct the tests.
"It's not only unconstitutional, but it is a public policy that rests on ugly stereotypes," said Howard Simon, ACLU Florida executive director.
As the state battles it out, Lebron said he will struggle to care for his son while he finishes school. The single father is scheduled to graduate with an accounting degree in December.
When he was sworn into the military, Lebron said he took an oath to uphold the constitution.
"Now I'm asking for the constitution to defend me," he said. "No one should have to give up their rights to provide for their children."