The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan criticized a court ruling issued today that will permit random drug testing of welfare recipients. The 3-judge panel of U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a 2000 district court opinion that Michigan’s welfare drug testing law is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy rights.

Being poor is not a crime in this country and poor parents should not be required to choose between providing for their children and relinquishing their constitutional rights,” said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU and an attorney in the case.  

“The appellate court decision has frightening implications for the privacy rights of all Americans, not just the poor,” added Moss.  “Reversing Judge Roberts’ earlier decision opens the door to drug testing of virtually any person who receives government benefits including those who receive business loans, student loans or tax deductions for mortgage payments.” 

In October 1999, Michigan’s Family Independence Agency instituted the nation’s first program requiring welfare applicants and recipients to take a urine test, regardless of whether they were suspected of using drugs.  Refusal to submit to random drug testing would lead to denial of income support and other FIA benefits for poor families with children.   

The program was in effect for five weeks before the Michigan court struck down the program as violating the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches.  During that time, 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 by 3 were for marijuana. 

“There is no precedent for the proposition that a group of adults must relinquish their rights simply because they are poor,” said Graham Boyd, director of the National ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project, who worked on the case with the Michigan ACLU.  “We will be seeking a rehearing of the three-judge decision by the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.” 

Read the decision in the case, Marchwinski v. Howard.