Being Poor Isn’t Probable Cause

The Indiana ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a disabled, indigent Posey County woman who was denied financial assistance because her disabilities prevented her from taking a drug test required by the Black Township Trustee.

A number of courts around the country have held that conditioning benefits on passage of a drug test violates the United States Constitution. (Before these programs were struck down, the states that imposed such tests also found far fewer abusers than would be expected in the general population. That makes sense, since people having trouble affording food are unlikely to have money for drugs. But hey–we all know that poverty is evidence of moral turpitude…)

The lawsuit against Black Township and Lindsay Suits, the Black Township Trustee, was filed on behalf of Mary Neale, a resident of the township. Neale previously received aid from the trustee only after submitting a urine sample and passing a drug test. Last year, however, Neale’s physical disabilities made submitting the sample impossible, so she was unable to apply for benefits.

The ACLU’s lawsuit points out that the Township Trustee’s “policy of requiring applicants for assistance to take a urine drug screen violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Further, the trustee’s failure to accommodate Neale’s disability when she sought to apply for assistance violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“The Constitution prohibits this type of suspicionless search and seizure,” said Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director. “It is wrong to condition the receipt of government benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights that protect all of us.”

The Fourth Amendment requires government actors to have probable cause to conduct a search. Probable cause has been defined as “articulable reasons to believe that a given individual has violated the law.”

Someone needs to explain to the growing ranks of eager-beaver “public servants” that neither poverty nor skin color are probable cause.


  1. I believe there should be a requirement that ALL public office holders must pass a test to prove they are drug free before they can take office. In addition, I believe they should submit to annual drug tests in order to keep their jobs.

  2. I have always wondered if the states that require drug testing to apply for public assistance take into consideration the physical conditions requiring prescribed controlled substances for medical conditions. When diagnosed 40 years ago with Meniere’s disease, doctors immediately wanted to prescribe Valium, a controlled substance. I refused until 8 years ago; I doubt I would pass a drug test after being disabled for 21 years. Before anyone starts bellowing that an ear disease cannot be disabling; I had my right inner ear removed in 1992, my left inner ear has been virtually destroyed by Meniere’s and proxsymal positional vertigo. It is rare that these problems are this severe and more rare that they occur in both ears but…here I am to prove the exception to the rule. I have no idea what the indigent Posey County woman’s condition is but there are physical conditions that are exceptions and need to be considered; there was no mention of seeking medical proof of her condition…she appears to have been simply denied out-of-hand.

    There will always be those who abuse the system, no matter what system they are attempting to avail themselves of. Common sense, logic, intelligent reasoning needs to be applied. The public assistance system, as the health care system and many others, is not a “one-size-fits-all” situation. Unless and until we get big money out of politics, overturn Citizens United, remove the current GOP ftom contol of this country, poverty and skin color (and today we have increasing numbers of poverty level Americans and varying degrees of skin color) these conditions will continue. This situation is but one which brings me back to my frequent and favorite rants – follow the money and vote every election day.

  3. Thank God for the good folks who work at the ACLU (and those who fund the ACLU !)

  4. Based on Sheila’s facts I think the ACLU is going to win the Mary Neale case. Sheila mentions no facts in support of the trustee’s assertion which, if simply quixotic, will not pass scrutiny.

  5. There has been for decades a stereotype for people on public assistance, they do not want to work, they have big TV’s and drive luxury cars. We have had some bottom dwelling politicians that have encouraged this stereotype. We hear a constant chorus from these politicians about cutting “entitlements” or welfare reform. There seems to be an audience that believe all these stereotypes. Perhaps if these politicians did their jobs by providing the circumstances and conditions for Living Wage jobs for all, public assistance would not be needed, except for people with disabilities.

  6. When state legislation was proposed this year to condition public assistance to poor people on their successful passage of drug testing, someone suggested the same testing of corporate welfare recipients. I must admit that suggestion had appeal. However, ACLU’s Ken Falk had it right and said it so well: “It is wrong to condition the receipt of government benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights that protect all of us.”

  7. Thanks Sheila for reminding me that among the word clutter stashed in my head was “moral turpitude”, a particularly fine utterance that had become misfiled and therefore unavailable to me. Like it.

    One of the popular dents in our collective wisdom is the cause and effect relationship between poverty and crime. Poverty is a cause of crime but most poverty doesn’t go there. And there are many other causes of crime.

    An article that I was reading the other day was about the reaction by most of us to young black or latino men projecting street attitude. It can cause us concern and may lead to the attitude that they are all like that because they’re black or latino and therefore have no resident father to teach them differently.

    Closer to the truth is that some are like that and some are black and some are Latino and it’s a defensive posture necessary to survive the mean streets of poverty and oh by the way some who act that way can be dangerous.

    Sometime after reading that I was watching a TED video, my favorite entertainment, in which a researcher lady demonstrated how great babies are about generalizing their sensory input. They learn a lot by considering the conditions under which something interesting happens and figuring out what means its likely to happen again. My dog does the same.

    So being perceptive and stupid stem from the same root, generalizing.

    I guess the solution to that dilemma is to never stop learning and keep improving our judgment about when generalizing is helpful and when its harmful. Or could be.

    I’m not personally for instance a fan of the “pants on the ground” look, but have found it to be comical rather than threatening. When those guys get a mature belly that makes their waist bigger than their hips and gravity does its thing and pants tend not to stay in place they’ll finally realize how dumb they looked as pretend thugs.

    Poverty is a social failure with many causes and effects. We would all be so much better off with less of it. The two most effective controls to alleviate it are education among the poor and business with a social conscience. We have much room for improvement.

    In general of course.

  8. Sheila’s right–people on assistance can’t afford drugs. But the people denying her benefits are much better heeled–and when I was in high school it was their kids who could afford big enough buys to supply the rest of us. It’s just good old fashioned Republican free marketing.

  9. My only connection to the Township Trustee system goes back to the 1970s. Out in Boone County we had a trustee who believed his job was to help the poor. To this end he not only distributed money from the government but also went to great lengths to help those in need. When we at our farm lost a couple of large trees in a storm he asked for those trees to cut up for firewood for the next year. We gave him the trees, and he came on weekends all long hot summer long to cut and haul the wood back to his place. The next fall those in the township who burned firewood to keep warm got free wood delivered to them.
    My question is how did we get from that to the mean, heartless bunch in Black Township and other republican controlled agencies across this country?

  10. One only needs to look at Dickens to see that the history of poor-shaming is long and dark.

  11. After some Internet sleuthing, I found the below ‘copy and paste’ posted by the Posey County Prosecutor in October 2014 on FB. I’m sharing this not because I support the Trustee’s position, but rather in the interest of sharing background information about the story.

    **Posey County Prosecutor, Travis Clowers, Weighs in on the Black Township Trustee’s Vision to Break the Cycle of Dependency**
    Recently, much has been discussed about our current Black Township Trustee, Lindsay Suits, and the advisory board that unanimously decided to require drug testing before public assistance is given.
    A trustee is someone who is elected to be a steward over public money and this is truly an important position. As a steward, the trustee, along with the advisory board, make decisions over money that you and I work very hard for because we are tax payers. We should expect, as taxpayers, that those dollars will be put to good use. There is no more worthy or noble use for money than to help those who are truly in need and I believe this to my very core. But can we truly help someone out of poverty by providing living expenses while they suffer a drug addiction?
    As I understand the current policy, anyone seeking public assistance must take a drug test. If he or she fails the drug test that person is then offered drug rehabilitation and counseling that is free to that individual. If the individual will participate in drug treatment, they receive financial help just as anyone else. The principle behind this policy seems simple. Treating drug addiction is a wise use of public funds and will help the recipient to break the cycle of addiction which may have a direct link to the financial needs as well as myriad of other issues drug use may cause. The trustee, as well as the tax payer, should expect that not a single dollar from the household in need be used for illegal drugs. Each day, millions of Americans get up early and go to work. With very few exceptions, most of those Americans took a drug test when they were hired and are subject to random testing when their employer sees fit. Is it too much to ask that someone seeking public assistance be able to pass a drug test before tax dollars are given?
    As you may know, the trustee will look over the finances of someone seeking aid. If that person has a cable television bill that costs $200 per month, the trustee may ask that the expense be eliminated before tax dollars are handed over. Is that not what a trustee should do as a steward? Is there any question that this would be an appropriate thing to ask? Then why would it be inappropriate or illegal to require that someone take a drug test and participate in drug treatment if they fail before receiving financial assistance from the trustee? Some may ask, what about the expense of drug testing? If the policy of drug testing and providing treatment changes the life of just one person, by helping them break the cycle of addiction to become a better father, mother, or member of this community, then isn’t it worth it?
    A recent on-line poll by the Mt. Vernon Democrat showed that 85% of those that responded were in favor of drug testing, showing us something we already know; Posey County is a community that believes in accountability. As prosecutor, I see the damage and destruction that drugs cause every day in our community. Drugs tear lives and families apart. They prohibit employment, breed violence, and in general break down the morals of the individual. Opponents of drug testing say that children who are in homes that do not receive assistance are “victims” to this policy. I would ask, are those children safe or somehow in a better position being in a home with someone addicted to drugs?
    It is my sincere hope that whoever is elected as trustee will continue drug testing along with drug treatment and that maybe through those efforts the cycle of addiction may be broken, giving the individual a greater chance at rising above the poverty line and leading a happier and more productive life.
    Travis Clowers
    Posey County Prosecutor

  12. The idea of giving people, who in addition to being poor are drug addicted, help in treating their addiction in addition to help surviving poverty seems commendable but is not the basis for ACLU’s law suite as I understand it.

    The law suite was about a woman who needs help and is entitled to it, not getting it.

    Conservatives often are seemingly confused about “tax” dollars vs other dollars. They are the same no matter how spent. We all would like all of our dollars to buy nothing but value but accept that waste is a component of every transaction.

    Helping folks who have been dealt a bad hand in life is not waste. It’s necessary. Spending $60K on an automobile scarcely different than a $35K car is waste.

    Hopefully we are moving back towards sensibility in identifying waste vs value as important but tax vs consumption dollars as inconsequential.

  13. This seems to be another example of the legislature passing a poorly thought-out law to please the base so the courts can sort it out. The pathetic defense from the prosecutor does not, in my judgment, address the legal objections of the Indiana ACLU, and it’s almost one of those statements telling the base that the courts are about to make the legislature and governor victims in the matter.

  14. “It is wrong to condition the receipt of government benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights that protect all of us.”

    Sitting here wondering what fundamental rights corporations have which require our legislators to bleed us dry, the money which they then use to build multi-billionaires state-of-the-art sports arenas.

  15. According to news media sources in SW Indiana including the Evansville Courier and the local television news reports, Mary Neale, 51, and her family exist on her monthly SSI check. She had received emergency assistance from the Trustee’s Office in 2013 after passing the requested urine test. In 2014, she again requested emergency assistance for utilities, went personally to the Trustee’s Office knowing she’d be requested to submit a urine sample on site. Because of her documented disabilities of arthritis, lower back pain, and obesity, she found she was unable to position her body in a manner where she could catch a stream of urine in the cup. She then requested a “hat”, basically a plastic container that fits over the toilet bowl allowing the sample to be collected while seated. And, the trouble began when Ms Neale was told by a Trustee Office employee that no “hat” would be provided to accommodate her inability to squat in the perfect position, hold a small cup, and manage to direct a stream of urine into the container. At that point, all kinds of ADA factors went into play. A simple accommodation of providing this “hat” would have prevented a jury trial, would have allowed Ms Neale to receive the emergency assistance for her utility bills.

    I realize that Trustees are not required to be lawyers; however, a simple understanding of ADA guidelines is worth all employer’s time in training any employee, even a small Trustee’s Office in rural Indiana. By the way, how many of pass private judgment on the obese folks on scooters in rural Walmarts across the nation?

  16. BSH; thank you for your imformative comments. Providing a urine sample is a simple medical procedure resulting in medial testing to provide results. The “hat” you said was required in Ms. Neale’s case is a basic medical tool for collecting urine; any facility that collects urine for any reaon should have this item on site to aid them. I’m sure Trustee’s Offices throughout the state are not set up for medical procedures and should not be allowed to require medical tests of applicants without proper supplies. But; what do I know, I try to deal from a sane, logical, common sense point of view; long lost in the political world today. The actual basis of this situation and others is that this is another prime example of violating an American citizen’s protection provided by the 4th Amendment, or is the applicant served with a warrant demanding they pee in a cup?

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