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Civil liberties groups urge Madawaska to reconsider drug testing

MADAWASKA, Maine – Citing violations of constitutional rights, the Maine Equal Justice Partnership (MEJP) and Maine branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) each recently sent letters to Madawaska Town Manager Ryan Pelletier urging the town to reconsider implementing a drug testing policy for its General Assistance applicants.

In June, members of the town’s Board of Selectpersons gave their approval to move forward with developing a policy that would require random drug screening for the municipal assistance program, which assists select residents with paying for necessary living expenses. Municipalities pay for these benefits, but the state reimburses towns 70 percent of actual General Assistance benefits paid.

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“This proposal forces poor people to surrender their constitutional rights in order to get assistance feeding their families,” said Jamesa Drake, staff attorney at the ACLU of Maine in a press release that accompanied the letters. “People don’t give up their rights to privacy and due process just because they’re poor.”

In its letter, the MEJP cites the 2014 case of Lebron v. Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, which overturned a drug testing of applicants for public assistance benefits.

“I appreciate the feedback received from Maine Equal Justice Partners and the ACLU of Maine,” Madawaska Town Manager Ryan D. Pelletier said Tuesday, July 12. “While the case of Lebron v. Secretary of Florida Department of Children and Families information they provided for me to review is interesting, I had already read that case in great detail.”

Pelletier added that the letters would remain under his consideration as he and the board continue to evaluate the proposed policy.

The Maine ACLU and MEJP both contend that Madawaska’s proposed drug testing would be “suspicionless” searches and would violate the standards set forth in the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding reasonable searches and privacy.

“The drug testing would not be mandatory for all general assistance applicants,” Pelletier reiterated Tuesday. “Their names would be put in the same pool as other town employees (and workfare participants) for random drug testing.”

“If the town really wants to save money and fight the drug problem, there are far more effective and constitutional ways to do so,” Jack Comart, litigation director for MEJP said in the release.

“This has never been a budget issue,” Pelletier said. “It’s about fairness and equity.” People taking part in the town’s “workfare” program are already subject to random drug tests, as are regular town employees, Pelletier explained.

Pelletier said he is not aware of any workfare applicant being randomly selected for drug testing since he became town manager in September. In any given year, approximately a half dozen people take part in the workfare program, he said.

Pelletier said it was his understanding that the Florida case referred to state benefits, and he was unaware of any case law that pertains to the types of local assistance programs Madawaska is considering.

The 2016-17 town budget includes $16,600 in General Assistance benefits for eligible applicants. Last year, Madawaska approved 46 out of 88 applicants for some level of General Assistance, according to Pelletier.

At a board meeting in June, Pelletier said there were no other municipalities in Maine requiring such General Assistance drug testing, and that the town was entering “uncharted territory.”

“I see it as a deterrent” to those who would abuse the system, Pelletier said at that June meeting.

Selectman Don Chasse expressed concern at that meeting about pending litigation in other states. He added at that time that the the town could face substantial legal fees if they adopt an ordinance which is then challenged in court, a point that both civil liberties groups pointed out in their letters to Pelletier.

According to information at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS) website, more than a dozen states around the U.S. currently have legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients. Nearly 20 other states have proposed, but not yet passed, similar laws, also according to the NCLS.

“I will share the information with Attorney Currier and perhaps be in a position to bring a recommendation to the board at their August meeting,” Pelletier said.

Pelletier is expecting to update the board on the policy development at a July 19 meeting. No final policy proposal is anticipated at that time, he added.

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