ACLU Wins Drug Testing Lawsuit in Court of Appeals

In a victory for privacy rights, the ACLU of Michigan announced today that a special 12-member panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has halted the State’s attempt to impose mandatory drug tests on all welfare recipients. Michigan is the only state in the country to require drug testing without reason to suspect drug use.

“It was a long time coming, but this ruling affirms that being poor is not a crime.  Low-income parents should not be required to choose between providing for their children and relinquishing their privacy rights,” said Kary Moss, Executive Director of the Michigan ACLU and an attorney in the case.

The ruling affirms District Court Judge Victoria Roberts’ opinion that random drug testing violates welfare recipients' privacy rights.

“This ruling should send a message to the rest of the nation that drug testing programs like these are neither an appropriate or effective use of a state’s limited resources,” said Graham Boyd, director of National ACLU Director of the Drug Policy Litigation Project, who argued the case before the en banc panel in Cincinnati.

The estimated cost of the Michigan program is $7 million.   Currently, Arizona and Vermont are considering similar legislation.  Other states that have some form of drug-testing for welfare recipients include Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Oregon, but none of these states test without reasonable suspicion.

The ACLU filed the class-action lawsuit in September 1999 on behalf of all Michigan welfare recipients who would be denied income support and other benefits for other children if they refused to submit to random drug testing or failed to comply with a mandatory "substance abuse treatment plan."   The law has not been enforced since 2000.

Selma Goode, the director of Westside Mothers, a plaintiff in the case, said of today’s decision, “We’re glad that justice prevailed. I work with welfare recipients every day and it’s simply unfair to assume that people in dire need use drugs.”

The ACLU argued that the State’s pilot program violates the Fourth Amendment's requirement that people not be subjected to "searches and seizures" without probable cause or suspicion that illegal activity has occurred.  Federal District Court Judge Victoria Roberts agreed with the ACLU, but the State appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Roberts’ ruling was reversed by a 3-judge panel of the Court. When the Court decided to re-hear the case, the appeals court decision was vacated. 

In the five weeks that the program was in effect, the drug tests were positive in only 8% of the cases, a percentage that is consistent with drug use in the general population.  Of 268 people tested, only 21 tested positive for drugs and all but 3 were for marijuana.

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