MN court: Woman who refused drug testing can still get welfare benefits

The Minnesota Court of Appeals Monday ruled that people with drug convictions cannot be permanently required to undergo drug testing as a condition of receiving general assistance benefits.

It ruled in the case of a Washington County woman who was convicted of drug possession in 1999 and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.

After being notified by Washington County of a requirement to submit to drug testing, Kim Verhein refused to provide a sample in 2016 and lost her benefits.

At issue is a 1997 law, which states:

If an applicant or recipient has been convicted of a drug offense after July 1, 1997, the assistance is ineligible for benefits under this chapter until five years after the applicant has completed terms of the court-ordered sentence, unless the person is participating in a drug treatment program, has successfully completed a drug treatment program, or has been assessed by the county and determined not to be in need of a drug treatment program.

Persons subject to the limitations of this subdivision who become eligible for assistance under this chapter shall be subject to random drug testing as a condition of continued eligibility and shall lose eligibility for benefits for five years beginning the month following:

(1) any positive test result for an illegal controlled
substance; or

(2) discharge of sentence after conviction for another
drug felony.

The Department of Human Service’s interpretation of the law required Verhein to submit to the drug testing, but the Court of Appeals ruled the law, as it interprets it, doesn’t apply to her.

“Granting effect to the commissioner’s current interpretation of the
statute would require persons receiving MSA or general-assistance benefits to undergo chemical testing indefinitely, even if decades have passed since the completion of a court-ordered sentence,” Judge Roger Klaphake wrote on his opinion overturning a denial of benefits to the woman.

“Those who, like appellant, have long since completed their court-ordered sentences and five-year period of ineligibility are not ‘[p]ersons subject to the limitations of this subdivision’ and are not required to undergo chemical testing for receipt of benefits under chapter 256D,” he wrote on behalf of a divided three-judge panel.

Judge Matthew Johnson, however, says Verhein is included among the people the Legislature intended to provide drug testing on an ongoing basis in exchange for welfare benefits.

The majority reasons that the phrase “[p]ersons subject to the limitations of this subdivision who become eligible for assistance under this chapter” is ambiguous on the ground that it could refer either to persons who previously were subject to the five-year period of ineligibility or to persons who presently are subject to the five-year period of ineligibility.

But the phrase need not be interpreted to refer to only
one group or the other; it could refer to both groups of persons. That is the only reasonable interpretation in light of the principle that, in determining whether a statute is ambiguous, we should consider a statute “as a whole and interpret its language to give effect to all of its provisions.”

With the Court of Appeals decision, Verhein is eligible for back-payment of welfare benefit she was previously denied, the court said.

Here’s the full decision.

  • Guest

    Am I understanding the state is saying, once subject to testing, you can be tested for life to get benefits? That seems odd.

    • pretty much, for people who become eligible for benefits AFTER their felony conviction.

  • MrE85

    If I ever become kKing, all state legislators would face unscheduled drug testing.

    On second thought, If I were king, there would be no state legislature…

  • lindblomeagles

    I have to admit, this ruling surprises me. From a public interest standpoint, society demanded benefits reform back in the 1990s fearing benefit recipients, such as this one, were not making an effort to work towards self-sufficiency; that they were exchanging tax paid benefits for other “goodies” such as drugs, clothing articles, etc.; I understand some of the judges’ points, which appears to be individuals are innocent until proven guilty, once you serve your time you should receive a fresh start. But, some drug users have such a hard time kicking the habit, that recidivism is extremely likely and common. In fact, I think it was Jeff Dubay that tried to quit a couple of times, and it just didn’t hold for him at KFAN or KSTP.

  • Kassie

    Working in the welfare office, there wasn’t a bigger pain in the butt than when someone admitted a drug conviction. One day, working with a client, I asked if he had been convicted of a crime, and he said yes. Sighing, I asked, what it was for. He said “murder.” I perked right up, “that’s great.” Convicted of murder, no problem, no extra paperwork or restrictions. Convicted of having cannabis, then ongoing drug testing, extra paperwork, and a pain in my butt.

    • Kassie

      I’ll point out, even though I’m sure no one is reading this day old post, that General Assistance is a $203/month grant. We are talking very small dollars here.