ACLU Challenges Invasive Home Searches Of Welfare Recipients in San Diego Area

July 24, 2000 12:00 am

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SAN DIEGO, CA — The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights advocates today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of welfare applicants and recipients who have been subject to unannounced and highly invasive searches of their homes as a condition to receiving government aid.

san diego search

A plaintiff shows her closet, which was inspected. She was harshly questioned because she kept some of her brothers clothing in the closet. She was also forced to go through the trash in an effort to find information on her husband’s whereabouts.

“There is no poverty exception to the Fourth Amendment,” said Jordan Budd, Managing Attorney of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “No one should be forced to waive her constitutional rights and submit to an unannounced, personally humiliating, and suspicionless search of her home just because she is in need of public assistance.”

In the lawsuit, the ACLU asserted that the civil rights of the plaintiffs’ were violated when investigators from the District Attorney’s office inspected their homes and interrogated friends and family members. Consequently, the ACLU requested that the court order city officials to immediately terminate the home search program.

The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution guarantee people the right to be “secure in their … houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In addition, the California Constitution guarantees the right to privacy.

In direct violation of the Bill of Rights, the home-search program applies only to those individuals whose applications raise no suspicion of fraud and contain no factual inconsistency. Applicants actually suspected of fraud are investigated through a separate process within the District Attorney’s office.

“The home search program stands the presumption of innocence on its head and is just the sort of invasive, unfounded government search that the Fourth Amendment was designed to prohibit,” said Rosemary Bishop of Advocates for Social Justice.

The lawsuit, Sanchez v. County of San Diego, was filed on behalf of five women who applied for food stamps and benefits. Each of the women supplied the documentation requested to support their applications and none were suspected of welfare fraud or any other wrongdoing. Nevertheless, they were told they would not receive benefits unless they permitted investigators to conduct an unannounced home search.

In desperate need of public assistance, the women felt they had no choice but to submit to the search. None were told what the investigator were looking for, or if any further documentation of their eligibility for benefits was needed.

“This country treats being poor as if it were a crime,” says Bob Newman of the Western Center on Poverty and Law. “In fact, the vast majority of welfare applicants are law-abiding citizens who have fallen on hard times and who only ask for the government’s help in meeting the basic needs of their children.”

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