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Court Won't Review San Diego Home Hunts

  Law Center  -   POSTED: 2007/11/26 13:42

The Supreme Court rejected a challenge Monday to a county's practice of routinely searching welfare applicants' homes without warrants and ruling out assistance for those who refuse to let them in. The justices refused, without comment, to intervene in the case from San Diego County, where investigators from the local District Attorney's office show up unannounced at applicants' homes and conduct searches that include peeking into closets and cabinets. The visits do not require any suspicion of fraud and are intended to confirm that people are eligible for government aid.

Failure to submit to the searches, which can last an hour, disqualifies applicants from assistance.

The 10-year-old program was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of six single parents who were seeking assistance. The welfare applicants argued that the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches, protects them from the home visits.

"When the investigator conducts the home inspection, no part of the home is off-limits," they said.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding the program, said the Supreme Court in 1971 allowed social workers to visit homes in New York to determine eligibility. The appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, said the visits do not even constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment in part because people are free to turn away the investigators.

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."

The local government said the high court should not step in.

"No applicant has been prosecuted for welfare fraud based upon anything observed or discovered during a home visit that contradicted information provided by the applicant," the county said in its brief for the Supreme Court.

Eight appeals court judges voted to have the full San Francisco-based court hear the case. Seven of those judges called the program "an attack on the poor."


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