The Etowah County Sheriff's Office has a Fourth Amendment problem.
About once a month, a marked sheriff's car shows up, unannounced and after dark, outside a family's home in Alabama. Uniformed officers walk to the family's door, in plain sight of every neighbor. They knock and demand to be let in. If the family refuses, the police threaten them with arrest. Once inside, the officers search the family's home – all without ever obtaining a warrant.
These unannounced intrusions are an ongoing, regular practice of the Etowah County Sheriff's Office. That practice is the basis for a lawsuit filed today by the ACLU, the ACLU of Alabama, and the law firm Jaffe & Drennan challenging these random and suspicionless searches as unconstitutional – and unfounded – harassment.
Why would law enforcement officers harass this family? When one member of the family was a child, he was found guilty of committing a sexual offense (an appeals court suggested the charges were bogus and that the child's lawyer was ineffective, but that's another story). Now, he must register with the state. Since his release, he has fulfilled every requirement under Alabama's Sex Offender Registration and Community Notification Act (RCNA). This includes registering in person at the Sheriff's office four times a year, which he has done without fail, and which he must continue to do for the rest of his life.
The Department of Youth Services has found that this young man is at low risk of reoffending, and he has complied with every requirement placed upon him by the state, including court-mandated treatment. Yet, every month, the Sheriff's department goes far beyond Alabama law – not to mention the Constitution – with their frequent, random intrusions into the plaintiffs' home. Nothing in the RCNA or any other law gives the sheriff's department license to invade this family's home without a warrant, or to conduct these inspections without any reason to suspect that the plaintiffs have done something wrong. What's more, Alabama state law protects the anonymity of anyone registered under the RCNA, and yet conspicuous law enforcement intrusions clearly draw unwanted attention to this family.
This is police abuse of power, plain and simple. And since the Sheriff's Department has announced on its website a policy of "random, monthly" visits to the home and work of everyone registered under the RCNA, we fear this may be happening over and over again to families throughout the county.
The lawsuit we filed today seeks to stop the Sheriff's Department from continuing its unconstitutional searches of the plaintiffs' home and to end its broader policy of inspecting the homes of every registrant in the county without suspicion. It's time to call off the witch hunt.
For more information about the case, click here.