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Federal appeals court allows warrantless home searches of welfare applicants

[JURIST] A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] has ruled [opinion, PDF] that a program in San Diego County [official website] which uses peace officers to search the homes of welfare applicants without having warrants does not violate constitutional bars against unreasonable searches or invasion of privacy. In Tuesday's 2-1 decision, the court said the visits by peace officers under Project 100%, designed to verify the applicant's eligibility for welfare benefits, should not be considered searches within the terms of the US and state constitutions. The court further stated that even if they could be considered searches, they are not unreasonable since the searches can only be done with the applicant's consent, they take place during normal business hours, and the welfare candidates are told about the searches when applying for benefits. The majority relied on the US Supreme Court's 1971 opinion in Wyman v. James [text], where the Supreme Court held that such visits do not amount to searches because they are not conducted as part of a criminal investigation, but a dissent to the San Diego case offered by Judge Raymond Fisher [official profile] pointed out that the case before the high court involved visits by social workers and not by peace officers of the local district attorney's office.

The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties [advocacy website] in 2000 on behalf of five welfare candidates who argued that the searches did not comply with state welfare provisions [press release]. Under the San Diego county project, welfare applicants must consent to the unannounced searches, which allow investigators to look inside open closets and cabinets, and applicants are usually denied welfare benefits if they do not agree. The plaintiffs plan to appeal the court's decision to the full Ninth Circuit. The San Diego Union-Tribune has local coverage.

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