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Government, Politics & Issues

Order blocking drug tests at Linn State Tech echoes ruling by Florida judge

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2011 - For the lawyer pressing a lawsuit against mandatory drug testing of students at Linn State Technical College, a ruling this week by a federal judge in Missouri is part of a one-two punch.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey extended until Nov. 8 her earlier temporary restraining order blocking the drug tests that the college in central Missouri had instituted, scheduled to begin this fall for incoming students.

In comments from the bench in Jefferson City, Laughrey indicated that she would make the order permanent but gave the college time to decide what its next move in the case would be, according to Anthony Rothert of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.

But, he added, Laughrey made it clear that she does not think the mandatory tests pass constitutional muster. In such a case, he said, drug tests conducted without suspicion of a student's wrongdoing could only be done if the college is able to show a special need that they be required.

Rothert said that the college had said in its pleadings that such a special need does exist -- for educational reasons and because the professions that the students are training for would require such tests on the job -- but he said that the judge appeared unconvinced.

Neither college officials nor Kent Brown, the attorney representing Linn State in the case, responded to numerous requests for comment on Laughrey's ruling. Brown was quoted by Missourinet as saying the school would file an appeal if the order blocking the drug tests is extended.

Noting that Laughrey's ruling came one day after a judge in Florida blocked that state's new drug-testing requirement for welfare recipients, Rothert said he was pleased that what the ACLU considers to be a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment was being recognized as such by two separate judges in two separate states.

The rulings are particularly gratifying, he added, at a time when an increasing number of officials seem to think that drug testing is an acceptable, necessary policy.

"The presumption has become that it's OK for people to be forced to take drug tests," Rothert said. "It's popular in political rhetoric right now, so it's very heartening to see two judges in two different parts of the country reject it back to back."

In the Florida case, Judge Mary Scriven wrote in a 37-page order that "the constitutional rights of a class of citizen are at stake" and said the state had failed to show why such searches should be conducted without suspicion or probable cause.

Noting that Gov. Rick Scott, in signing the drug-testing measure into law in May, had said it was designed to make sure that welfare money wasn't "wasted" on people who used drugs, Scriven wrote:

"If invoking an interest in preventing public funds from potentially being used to fund drug use were the only requirement to establish a special need, the state could impose drug testing as an eligibility requirement for every beneficiary of every government program. Such blanket intrusions cannot be countenanced under the Fourth Amendment."

In earlier comments on the drug-testing plan, Linn State officials have said it was necessary to prepare its students for life outside college, where companies that provide the jobs for which students are being trained routinely test workers for drugs.

College officials acknowledged they have no reason to think that students at Linn State use drugs more than students at other colleges, but they wanted to live up to their mission of making sure graduates are ready for the world of work.

Tests were conducted when first-time students reported to campus this fall, but because of the lawsuit and subsequent court order, results have not been reported. According to the plan, students who test positive for drugs would be given a second test within 45 days; a second positive test would result in students' being forced to leave campus without receiving a refund of their tuition.

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