Monday, November 26, 2007

Supreme Court Denies Hearing San Diego Fourth Amendment Case

Today, the United States Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal filed in the case of Sanchez, et al., v. San Diego County, et al. (07-211). Appellants in the case were challenging San Diego’s policy of conducting searches of the domiciles of welfare recipients; these searches are conducted without warrants, and people who refuse access to the agents are denied government assistance.

Although these searches are said to be conducted to ensure there is no fraud on the part of applicants, no allegations of fraud are required prior to the searches. Additionally, agents conducting the searches of the residences are not limited in their searches, as searches often “include peeking into closets and cabinets.”

The ACLU had challenged these searches on Fourth Amendment grounds, arguing that these searches constituted unlawful searches and seizures. In upholding this practice in a 2-1 decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that “the visits do not even constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment in part because people are free to turn away the investigators.” Judge Fisher, the lone dissenter, wrote that San Diego’s practice was unlawful as it allowed agents 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."

The local government asked that the Supreme Court not interfere with the program, offering evidence that "[n]o applicant has been prosecuted for welfare fraud based upon anything observed or discovered during a home visit that contradicted information provided by the applicant". In denying to hear the appeal, the United States Supreme Court offered no comment as to their decision.

It would appear that the 9th Circuit’s reasoning that “people are free to turn away the investigators” is flawed; such action would, as dictated by the policy, cause applicants to be disqualified from receiving government aid. For many, the decision comes down to “allowing” agents to search their house or lose these benefits which they require to purchase necessities; given such a “choice”, it is not surprising that they “choose” to allow agents access to their homes.

The 9th Circuit’s reasoning, aside from the opinion put forth in the dissent of Judge Fisher, offers an unconvincing justification for allowing the local government to circumvent the applicants’ Fourth Amendment rights by permitting searches without requiring warrants and probable cause. As the United States Supreme Court has denied hearing the case without offering comment, it appears that at least a majority of the Justices agree with the 9th Circuit and feel that such searches can be continued, seemingly in violation of these applicants’ rights.

Article link: Washington Post

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