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November 6, 2006 - The Guardian (CA Edu)

Judge Upholds Aid Pull For Drug Convictions

Court Rules Federal Financial Aid Revocation for Illegal Drug Possession Is Not Unconstitutional

By Jaclyn Appel, Contributing Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Last month, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a drug provision that prevents students from receiving federal aid if convicted of drug offenses while enrolled in college.

In the lawsuit, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union claimed that a provision in the Higher Education Act violated the Fifth Amendment on two charges. By singling out individuals convicted of drug charges, the government was denying due process, they said.

In addition, by punishing students legally and taking away their aid for the same crime, the Higher Education Act provision resulted in double jeopardy, the lawsuit stated.

"The mere fact that the classification itself results in some inequality or unfairness does not, in and of itself, offend the Constitution," U.S. District Court Judge Charles B. Kornmann stated in his ruling. "The Constitution affords no right to a higher education. .. Likewise, there is no fundamental right to the receipt of federal student financial aid."

According to Kornmann, Congress had a "rational basis" for passing the law, despite allegations of due process denial. The U.S. Department of Education's goal was that the law would be responsible for decreasing the amount of drug offenses on college campuses and preventing citizens from paying federal taxes supporting illegal conduct.

For that reason, Kornmann said he was convinced that the law was worthy of being legitimately pursued by the government.

Kornmann also dismissed the accusation of double jeopardy; the law, he said, was not intended to punish students on a legal basis for drug crimes, but rather to encourage them to discontinue drug use and undergo rehabilitation.

Despite the issue of the Higher Education Act's constitutionality, members of SSDP are dissatisfied with the law and would like to abolish it. Congress amended the Higher Education Act in 1988 to deny federal student aid to first-time drug offenders for one year, two years for those convicted a second time and permanently for those who are convicted a third time.

Last January, the law was changed again so that only students who are convicted of drug offenses while enrolled in a university and receiving financial aid could be subject to its consequences.

"We are outraged with the judge's ruling [and] disagree with his reasoning," SSDP Campaign Director Tom Angell said. "It is completely irrational to attempt to reduce drug abuse by kicking students out of school.

"This law should [be] erased from the books altogether. Otherwise eligible students should not have their financial aid stripped from them because of minor drug convictions."

Another problem with the provision, according to the plaintiffs, is that it targets only one aspect of crime.

"It is true as pointed out by the plaintiffs," Kornmann said, "that students convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana may be prevented from receiving federal student financial aid while those students convicted of serious sexual or violent crimes would not suffer a similar fate."

Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education stands by Kornmann's ruling.

"Department officials are gratified by the court's decision and will continue to carry out the law," department spokeswoman Stephanie Baybak said.

UCSD Director of Student Policies and Judicial Affairs Anthony Valladolid was unable to disclose whether any UCSD students were directly impacted by the Higher Education Act.

"Given that drug convictions are required to be disclosed on [Free Application for Student Aid] applications, I can assume some of our students are affected," he said. "I do not have specific information as it is protected by [Family Education Rights and Privacy Act] and not publicly disclosed."

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