Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Friday, September 22, 2006

Warrantless Searches of Family Homes To Determine Welfare Ineligibility Constitutional

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upheld the constitutionality of a program adopted in California in 1997 to cut down on fraud.  The program, called Project 100%, involves sending  unarmed investigators from the district attorney's office to arrive unannounced at the homes of welfare applicants to verify assets and look for other disqualifying information.  They conduct interviews, determine if eligible dependents live there and certify an "absent" parent does not live there. The ACLU had challenged the program as a violation of the 4th Amendment rights of the families thus investigated.

The majority in the 2-1 decision said the case was controlled Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309 (1971) In which the court had allowed social workers to visit homes in New York to determine eligibility.  Using sworn peace officers "does not cause the home visits to rise to the level of a search in the traditional criminal law context," Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote for the 2-1 panel.   The court also cited a 2002 California Supreme Court decision upholding a home visit program in Los Angeles County and said the "underlying purpose of the home visits is to verify eligibility for welfare benefits, and not for general law enforcement purposes."

In dissent, however, Judge Raymond Fisher said it was unlawful for an investigator from the district attorney's office to go "walking through the applicant's home in search of physical evidence of ineligibility that could lead to criminal prosecution either for welfare fraud or other crimes unrelated to the welfare application."  He went on to argue that "Nor do I agree with the majority's improper discounting of the Appellants' heightened privacy interest in their home. In the majority's view, even if the home visit is a search, it is reasonable because the Appellants' relationship with the state as potential welfare recipients "reduce[s] the expectation of privacy even within the sanctity of the home." Maj. Op. at 11517. To support this conclusion, the majority relies on Griffin v. Wisconsin, 483 U.S. 868, 107 S. Ct. 3164, 97 L. Ed. 2d 709 (1987), a case that upheld the constitutionality of a warrantless search of a probationer's home. By suggesting that welfare applicants may be treated the same as convicted criminals, the majority ignores the limits implicit -- and explicit -- in Griffin."

Sanchez v. County of San Diego, 2006 U.S. App. LEXIS 23788  (September 19, 2006 bgf)
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