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.