County welfare officers may conduct routine searches of the homes of welfare recipients to combat fraud under a ruling in a California case that the Supreme Court let stand Monday.
The justices refused to hear a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union, which contended that San Diego County’s policy of requiring home searches without a warrant violated privacy rights.
The 4th Amendment to the Constitution forbids the police to search a residence without a warrant. But the home inspections in San Diego County are different, judges said, because they do not seek evidence of a crime. Instead, they are intended to determine whether welfare recipients qualify for benefits.
The San Diego district attorney adopted a policy in 1997 under which applicants for welfare benefits must agree to a “walk through” of their residence while they are present. The inspectors check on whether the applicant has an eligible dependent child and has the amount of assets claimed. They also check on whether a supposedly “absent” parent lives at the residence. If residents refuse to permit a home visit, they can lose their benefits.
“No applicant has been prosecuted for welfare fraud based upon anything observed or discovered during a home visit,” County Counsel John J. Sansone told the high court.
In its suit, the ACLU contended that the mandatory home searches, based on no evidence of wrongdoing, violated the 4th Amendment and its ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
But a federal judge ruled for San Diego County, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in a 2-1 decision last year. Judges A. Wallace Tashima and Andrew Kleinfeld formed the majority, while Judge Raymond Fisher dissented. Afterward, eight judges filed a dissent and argued unsuccessfully that the full 9th Circuit should reconsider the panel’s ruling.
“This case is nothing less than an attack on the poor,” said Judge Harry Pregerson, writing for the dissenters. “This is especially atrocious in light of the fact that we do not require similar intrusions into the homes and lives of others who receive government entitlements. The government does not search through the closets and medicine cabinets of farmers receiving subsidies.”
Pregerson noted that San Diego is alone among California’s 58 counties in mandating home searches for welfare recipients, but “this ruling will surely set a new standard,” he added.
The ACLU asked the Supreme Court to take up the case of Sanchez vs. County of San Diego, but it was dismissed in a one-line order Monday.