U.S. tells Georgia that drug testing of food-stamp recipients violates law

ATLANTA, June 4 Wed Jun 4, 2014 7:20pm EDT

ATLANTA, June 4 (Reuters) - The federal government has warned the state of Georgia that its new law requiring some food-stamp recipients to undergo drug testing is illegal.

In a letter to Georgia's attorney general on Tuesday, Robin Bailey, regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Georgia that drug testing to qualify for food stamps "is not allowable under law." The letter did not specify a possible penalty.

Georgia Republican Governor Nathan Deal and state Attorney General Sam Olens, also a Republican, declined to comment on Wednesday on the letter.

But the measure's Republican sponsor said he believed the drug-testing program should begin as planned on July 1 even if that prompts a court fight with the federal government.

"Some bureaucrat in the Obama administration shouldn't be dictating policy in the state of Georgia," state Representative Greg Morris told Reuters on Wednesday. "We should implement the law. I believe it's constitutional," he said.

Under the bill, testing could be required if authorities have a "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. People failing the test would temporarily lose benefits, although their children could receive assistance through another adult.

Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, said the Republican-controlled Legislature was warned when the bill was being debated that it violated federal law.

"They didn't care," Seagraves said. She said the law violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and would be challenged in court.

"If they require a drug test of anybody, we are open to represent that person in court," Seagraves said.

A federal judge late last year struck down a Florida bill requiring drug screening for welfare recipients, ruling it violated the constitutional prohibition of unreasonable searches.

Last summer, North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory vetoed legislation that would have required some recipients of cash welfare benefits to undergo drug screenings, saying it had been ineffective in other states. (Editing by David Adams and Peter Cooney)

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