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Drug testing of state employees: Federal judge says no to Florida

April 26, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott uses a magnifying glass to look at finger prints in an 8th grade science class in Palm Harbor, Fla., Monday afternoon, April 9, 2012.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott uses a magnifying glass to look at finger prints… (James Borchuck / Associated…)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s attempt to force drug testing on state workers has been blocked by a federal judge, the latest development in a case seen as a bellwether for similar efforts involving employees and those receiving social service or welfare benefits.

On Thursday, Federal District Judge Ursula Ungaro ruled that Scott’s executive order violated constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure because it “does not identify a concrete danger that must be addressed by suspicionless drug testing.”  The Miami-based judge also wrote that the order should be struck down because “the governor shows no evidence of a drug-use problem at the covered agencies.”

The decision will be appealed, Scott said in a statement emailed to reporters.

“As I have repeatedly explained, I believe that drug testing state employees is a common-sense means of ensuring a safe, efficient and productive work force,” Scott said.  “That is why so many private employers drug test, and why the public and Florida’s taxpayers overwhelmingly support this policy. I respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and will pursue the case on appeal.”

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a public employees union, and the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged Scott’s order, issued in March 2011. The order called for mandatory drug testing for all new hires and random testing for about 85,000 existing employees at many state agencies. About 77% of all state personnel would face the random testing.

Scott’s executive order, which was suspended pending the court ruling, was part of Florida’s effort to use drug testing as a yardstick for a variety of benefits. A separate state law required drug tests for welfare recipients; Scott had suspended that law that after the ACLU filed a separate lawsuit. A federal judge in Orlando has temporarily blocked that measure as well.

“We’ve seen a rash of these invasive laws or policies where the government wants to search bodily fluids without reason,” ACLU spokesman Baylor Johnson said by telephone from Florida. In addition to testing employees and welfare assistance, some states have proposed testing those who receive food stamps or unemployment insurance, he said.

Such efforts have increased since the 2010 election, when Republicans, including Scott, won in several states, but “Florida has been seen as the test case,” Johnson said.

Among the states considering some form of drug testing for those receiving social service benefits are Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Arizona, according to Will Matthews, a spokesman for the national ACLU in New York. None has implemented a measure, he said.

In defending the executive order, Florida lawyers argued that national studies indicate that there is a certain amount of drug abuse in most workplaces and that there is a public interest in identifying such employees. The state also argued that public employees have a lesser standard of privacy because some facts about them, such as their financial status, are public.

But Ungaro rejected that argument, writing that the state “offers no plausible rationale explaining why the fact that a state employee's work product and financial status are publicly accessible leads to the conclusion that the employee's expectation of privacy in his or her bodily functions and fluids is then diminished.”

In striking down the executive order, the judge didn’t end the issue in Florida. Beyond the appeal, the state's situation is complicated by a law allowing, but not requiring, random drug testing in some state agencies. That law is expected to lead to another suit if it goes into effect in July.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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